We’ve all heard Henry Ford’s (apparent) quote about his early customers:
“If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse”
Steve Jobs followed a relatively similar mantra:
“People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”
Functionally, it’s a lesson of first principles; that is, maintaining rigid focus on the known “ends” while detaching yourself from the “means” that get you there.
In the case of transportation, it’s not about what vehicle that’s used to get you there, it’s that you want to get there more efficiently—faster, cheaper, more comfortably, etc.,. That’s why the car—not a slightly faster breed of horse—ended up revolutionizing the travel industry. Similarly, it won’t be a slightly more efficient plane pushes humanity into the next age of global travel but perhaps completely new mode of transportation (Elon Musk’s Hyperloop?).
Brian Chesky (Founder of AirBnB) explained it perfectly through a drill analogy. Namely, that people who are going to buy a drill don’t actually want to buy a drill, they want to buy the hole that it’s going to create. The “means” (drill) is irrelevant, so long as it provides the best, quickest, most affordable “end” (hole) as possible.
The point is not that incremental changes aren’t important. They are.
In-fact, the frequency disparity between incremental changes and complete disruptions is to be expected, as major disruptions naturally occur less and actually require incremental improvement to reach the “tipping point” of improved capability.
The point is, that we are naturally predisposed to work within the confines of what others have done or are doing rather than question the foundations on which they operate.
While entrepreneurship and innovation do provide an easy example in which to understand this concept, it can just as easily be applied almost every other aspect of your life. For example:
Sending out resumes to get a job? What are you actually trying to do (i.e. First Principles?) Get the attention of the interviewer? Prove your worth and expertise to the CEO? With that established, is a resume really the best way to do this? If not (definitely not!), then how do you approach this problem—fundamentally one of naturally connecting with another human being? How many paths will get you to this same end and how can you approach this problem differently—without deducing from analogy?
We have almost unlimited access to information, communication, and creative power—more than any other time in human history—but more often than not, we simply fail to ask the simple questions that allow us to see beyond the shadow of the status quo.
Every day I hear people talking about how established giants like Amazon and Facebook have already won—that you can’t compete. Bullshit.
While you may not be able to “out Amazon, Amazon” they surely are not the last mover in commerce—nor Facebook in social. Anyone who has read even the slightest amount of history knows that seemingly invincible giants have, without exception, always met their end.
Especially while living through an era that continues to witness the fall of previously unassailable corporations across countless industries, this notion is ridiculous.
Yet, with a few notable exceptions, an increasing number of us have inadvertently removed ourselves from viewing the world from this perspective.
Instead we try to copy what works, to iterate on an established framework, to color between the lines.
Sure, sometimes you hit a home run, but more often than not small changes get you small results…It’s hard to be remarkable when you and your organization insist on not changing the status quo
While there are a few recent examples such as AirBnB and Thalmatic Labs—also among the most inspiring and revered companies (coincidence?)—they are far and away the exception. Movements such as the X Prize foundation, led by Peter Diamandis, are also doing wonders to push this type of “clean slate” thinking forward, and only further provides credence to the fact I’ve (hopefully) begun to establish here.
The fact being, that each and every one of us has the potential to become that visionary—that person or organization that changes everything. All we need is to start viewing the world in the proper light and start building our understanding through the “ends”, not the “means”.
If nothing else, we must understand that the status quo (even the relatively new status quo) is often nothing more than the standard of how things were done in the past—a relic of a different time.
As technology and our understanding of the world continues its rapid expansion, it’s our job as creatives, entrepreneurs, and innovators within companies to challenge every “how” that we encounter and bring it to modernity using the tools and experiences at our disposal.
While, yes, the cycle of major disruption does occur at seemingly regular intervals, I can’t help but believe that it is turning much slower than it could (should).
If there was even a slight increase in the percentage of the individuals around the world who began to regularly challenge the status quo in this way, the results—and our lives—would undoubtedly be much different.
The bigger they are, the harder they fall:
Look at the world today. What has been around forever? What institutions, companies, methodologies are accepted as the only “reasonable” means to an end? Are they really?
Just because something has been done one way for hundreds, or even thousands of years doesn’t make it invulnerable. More often than not, these longstanding tenants are exactly the places that are most vulnerable to disruption.
For starters, take a quick look at some of the biggest institutions around: education, religion, government, and traditional commerce.
Many of these organizations have survived thousands of years and have resisted or adapted in the face of a quickly evolving world—especially throughout the past decade. But do you really think that they’re unassailable? Do you really believe that the methods and ideas they were founded and sustained on will never be irreproachable? I would assert not.
Furthermore, the evidence is mounting that each one of these examples is already crumbling and about to be thrown on their heads.
-Education is about to be radically transformed by technologies and new ways of inspiring creativity and growth in our youth. Changes that are long overdue, but will fundamentally erase prior traditions and established methods of education.
-Religion is crumbling by the day. Attendance has never been lower, institutions have never been more desperate (or corrupt), and athiesm is the fastest growing minority around the world.
-Government has grown increasingly inefficient in just about everything it does. As individuals continue to gain power, I expect there to be widespread changes in how this institution is perceived and allowed to interrupt and influence the lives of a newly empowered populace.
-Commerce is almost entirely disconnected from modern consumers. Mass-market approaches to engaging and nurturing customer relationships (an oxymoron if I’ve ever heard one) are fading in effectiveness by the day. (Luckily, we’re solving this one at LeanMIll.)
Take each one of these (and every other industry or niche you’re familiar with) and apply first principles. What principles dominate (Not necessarily the ones they preach (puns!!))? Has maximum efficiency been reached? Have they been slowly outdated as the world has moved forward?
If today you were to establish the entire space from square one, where would you start? Would you get the same thing we have now?
Hopefully the answer is clear.
Which begs the question: Are you working within the confines of outdated assumptions or weak foundations?
There’s a lot of room at the top. A slight change in world view and a bit of courage may be all that is separating you from being there.
It’s up to us all to deny the established, topple the giants, and move humanity forward.
Let’s get started…
Graham Mumm is the CEO and Chief Product Architect at Bilder Languages, a virtual education institution named “the greatest learning breakthrough since the printing press”, and LeanMill, a company reshaping global commerce through “Personal A.I.” He’s been to more than 44 countries, will soon be a hyper-polyglot, and spends his free time reading, tinkering, and exploring new opportunities and strange lands.