Fundamental questions allow you to explore new perspectives that can unlock new opportunities. Entrepreneurs can be unwilling to ask them–even of themselves–because a label that is commonly applied: stupid questions.
“What’s blindingly obvious cannot be looked at.”
The ability to look at a situation de novo–with newcomer’s eyes–is one of the essentials to creative problem solving and therefore innovation. The willingness to appear stupid by asking basic questions also comes in handy. While entrepreneurs may benefit from empathy with prospects and customers I think having too much need for social approval will hold you back. I am comfortable being wrong for long periods of time because that is what is required to nurture a new perspective or new approach that is at variance with the status quo. The trick is to sustain empathy in the face of a tacit–or in some cases explicit–lack of approval.
Orwell: Keep a Journal to See What’s In Front of Your Nose
“To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.
One thing that helps toward it is to keep a diary, or, at any rate, to keep some kind of record of one’s opinions about important events. Otherwise, when some particularly absurd belief is exploded by events, one may simply forget that one ever held it. Political predictions are usually wrong. But even when one makes a correct one, to discover why one was right can be very illuminating. In general, one is only right when either wish or fear coincides with reality. If one recognizes this, one cannot, of course, get rid of one’s subjective feelings, but one can to some extent insulate them from one’s thinking and make predictions cold-bloodedly, by the book of arithmetic. In private life most people are fairly realistic. When one is making out one’s weekly budget, two and two invariably make four. Politics, on the other hand, is a sort of sub-atomic or non-Euclidean word where it is quite easy for the part to be greater than the whole or for two objects to be in the same place simultaneously. Hence the contradictions and absurdities I have chronicled above, all finally traceable to a secret belief that one’s political opinions, unlike the weekly budget, will not have to be tested against solid reality.”
George Orwell in “In Front Of Your Nose” (First published: Tribune. London — March 22, 1946.
There are several good observations embedded in this passage that are of practical use to entrepreneurs.
- Slow moving developments are hard to spot, a log helps you keep track.
- When a lot is happening, for example when you face a new situation–for example when you are are exploring a new market–everything is salient and you cannot rely on your memory to sort out what is important. Writing down your impressions and observations allows you to revisit them.
- Writing down predictions, whether in a premortem where you catalog potential causes of failures, or a decision record where you capture your state of mind as to likely outcomes flowing from a decision, allows you to avoid cognitive dissonance and spot where you can improve your judgement.
Noticing: Mindfulness is a Competitive Advantage
“A Maine farmer was sitting quietly looking over fields and valleys in the evening sunset. When he was asked, “What are you doing?” his answer was short and to the point. “Noticing.”
Richard Gilbert in “Noticing: Awareness as a form of prayer“
Careful observation and mindfulness is a source of competitive advantage for an entrepreneur. Seeing something new in the mundane and the obvious has led many entrepreneurs to insights for a new products. I find meditation is helpful in giving me the patience to look things over thoroughly, especially when I am in a hurry to make a decision or proceed.
You See a New Business First With Your Mind’s Eye
“What is now proved was once, only imagined.”
William Blake, “Proverbs of Hell in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell“
While not everything that can be imagined is ultimately proven, an idea that is proven starts out as an idea or hypothesis, often triggered by careful observation and the willingness to inspect the obvious–in retrospect–hiding in the everyday. One way I found useful to visualize gaps and potential opportunities is to actually draw one more diagrams of a situation. This seems to access another mode of perception that can unlock new insights.
Conventional Wisdom Can Be Inverted for Profit
“It’s generally accepted, so generally accepted it may not be true at all.”
John Murphy (my Uncle)
If reality is a shared consensual illusion (with apologies to William Gibson’s definition of cyberspace as a “shared consensual hallucination”) then the ability to remove socially imposed blinders is a competitive advantage and a source of profit. That being said the vast majority of the time conventional wisdom is real wisdom and you should have direct evidence that it’s in fact wrong. But too often things get written down in books and accepted as gospel when they were just a shortcut that worked for the author in a particular situation. In the same way that Newtonian mechanics works well most of the time despite being “wrong” compared to quantum mechanics, conventional wisdom may be slightly wrong but a better guide than the alternatives you are considering. Stupid questions how help you to see beyond the prevailing wisdom.
Familiar things happen and mankind does not bother about them.
It requires a very unusual mind to undertake the analysis of the obvious.
Alfred North Whitehead
Related Blog Posts
- Asking Questions From a Caring Perspective
- Few–If Any–Silicon Valley Secrets
- Entrepreneurs Exploit Errors in Conventional Wisdom
- David Foster Wallace: The Only Choice We Get is What to Worship
- When Exploring, Keep a Log
- See What’s Missing: Careful Observation Key To Success
- Uncle’s Day is a remembrance of my Uncle John.
- Customer Development: Scouting A New Market which includes this observation:
Unthinkable products must overcome mental barriers formed by “We’ve never done it that way” or “I’ve never seen that before.” They are hiding in plain sight but require you to ask a lot of basic questions. Be careful though, traditions prevent problems you did not realize were there: they often exist for powerful but forgotten reasons. If you find yourself considering an approach that departs from established practice in more than one or two ways be very careful: the odds are good that you will encounter a “forgotten problem” with each tradition you break, take on too many and fighting alligators will overwhelm your plans to drain the swamp.