Don't Let Ignorance Masquerade as Initiative
I don't mind people who are easily or regularly confused. At least they're thinking--and, frankly, confusion is a higher state of knowledge than ignorance. Most of the time I don't even mind ignorance. A great deal of the early enthusiasm in building a business comes from a combination of ignorance, bad information, and willful self-delusion. As often as not those qualities help you get over many early humps.
With time and education ignorance is basically curable. Having spent the last decade or so building and rebuilding colleges, I've developed a real appreciation for the old expression "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance." (That said, the most important education for an entrepreneur is never found in the classroom but in the streets and in the trial-and-error process.)
For better or worse, true education is about the journey from cocky ignorance to miserable uncertainty, because real knowledge is essentially discovering and acknowledging the extent of your ignorance (notwithstanding whatever crazy conjugations Donald Rumsfeld may have come up with) and then moving forward to fill those gaps.
Ignorance is a big part of the start-up game; in some cases it's almost a competitive advantage not to understand or appreciate just how tough, costly, and long the process of building something new and important can be. I always say that if we entrepreneurs knew how hard the journey was going to be we might not have started down the path in the first place.
The truth is that ignorance won't necessarily kill you or your business, it will just make you sweat a lot. So I’m OK with some ignorance. What I can’t stand is ignorance combined with arrogance, and I see way too much of that these days. There is nothing more frightening than arrogant ignorance in action.
This problem takes many forms, and I’m sure you’ve experienced at least some of them, but I want to focus on a single, specific type. Those of us of a certain grand old age were raised with a lot of rules, and one of the most fundamental of all was that you asked permission before (not after) you did something.
Now I know all about the idea that in our crazy and aggressive start-up culture you should just rush straight ahead and try to get a jump on things and then beg for forgiveness afterwards. In fact I've been there and done that a bunch of times. But there was a critical distinction: I might have rushed ahead without permission, but before I moved an inch I gathered as much information as I possibly could.
Here's the bottom line: The way you get the information that you need is very, very simple. You don't guess, you ask. As hard as it is to believe, this seems like a foreign concept to a huge number of young entrepreneurs we deal with every day. If you ask the right people for the required information and/or direction, the odds of your going off half-cocked and being dead wrong are virtually zero. So why wouldn't anyone with a brain take a minute, catch their breath, and ask before they act?
I think the problem is arrogance. They're too smart for their own good, and too lazy at the same time. This is the triumph of hubris over homework. "I don’t have to ask, I'll just jump in and if I mess things up, so be it. Someone else can clean up my mess." When mistakes happen and you ask them why they didn't spend the marginal few minutes to get the goods that would enable them to get things done right the first time, they hide behind silly platitudes from B-school. They'll say things like, “I thought you wanted me to think for myself” or “I was just taking the initiative” when the truth is that they were being arrogant and assumptive and, worst of all, too lazy and/or too proud to do the preparation and ask for the assistance they needed to do the right thing.
I don’t see this going away any time soon, but it's important that leaders and managers, especially in young companies, where communication is so critical, (1) make it more than O.K. for anyone to ask questions (it's not stupid or embarrassing); (2) make it very, very clear that everyone needs to be sure that they have all the information available before they act; and (3) make sure people understand that there’s no upside in guessing what anyone wants or expects, or in assuming that they know what the right actions are through some process of divine inspiration.
It couldn’t be easier: Don’t guess. Ask.
HOWARD TULLMAN | Columnist
Howard Tullman is the CEO of 1871 in Chicago where, at the moment, 260 digital startups are building their businesses every day. He is also the general managing partner of G2T3V, LLC and Chicago High Tech Investors – both early-stage venture funds; a member of Mayor Emanuel’s ChicagoNEXT Innovation Council; and Governor Quinn’s Illinois Innovation Council. He is an adviser to many technology businesses and an adjunct professor at the Kellogg Graduate School of Management. @tullman