Best practices are best practices for a reason: They provide clear direction, clear guidelines, and clear steps to take. Best practices don't just ensure that the right things get done the right way; they also provide a sense of comfort and security.
If this happens, you know what to do. If that happens, you know what to do.
But best practices don't just spring up, fully-formed and ready to implement. Getting to a place where decisions, actions, and results seem clear-cut is almost always messy and chaotic.
Those guidelines for how to effectively handle a customer complaint -- and to take steps to ensure the same problem doesn't happen again? Those processes are the result of trial and error, judgment calls, lessons learned... what now seems clear was once uncertain and even chaotic.
That value proposition and supporting marketing strategy that now seems crystal-clear? It's the result of numerous changes in direction, a couple of pivots... what now makes your company different is the result of endless strategy sessions and plenty of sleepless nights as you tried desperately to find the right way forward.
Steve Blank, widely credited with launching the Lean Startup movement, paraphrases Marine platoon leader Donovan Campbell describing how he tried to instill in his troops the proper combat mentality, putting Campbell's approach into startup terms:
"Startups are inherently chaos. As a founder you need to prepare yourself to think creatively and independently, because more often than not, conditions on the ground will change so rapidly that the original well-thought-out business plan becomes irrelevant.
If you can't manage chaos and uncertainty, if you can't bias yourself for action and if you wait around for someone else to tell you what to do, then your investors and competitors will make your decisions for you and you will run out of money and your company will die.
Therefore the best way to keep your company alive is to instill in every employee a decisive mindset that can quickly separate the crucial from the irrelevant, synthesize the output, and use this intelligence to create islands of order in the all-out chaos of a startup."
Ambiguity is a fact of daily life for a startup.
He's right. No matter how well thought-out your business plan, no matter how much experience you have in the industry, no matter how prepared you think you are for every contingency... as the eminent philosopher Mike Tyson says, "Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth."
His point? Adversity doesn't define you. Ambiguity doesn't define you. Chaos doesn't define you. How you respond to adversity, ambiguity, and chaos is what defines you -- and is what defines your company.
People love to say, "You need to know what you don't know," and while that sounds great, how can you know what you don't know until you find out what you don't know?
Where a startup is concerned, it's impossible to avoid ambiguity. In fact, ambiguity -- feeling unsure about how to react, how respond, how to move forward, how exactly to do the right things the right way -- is your friend.
Ambiguity is an opportunity. Ambiguity provides the perfect opportunity for you and your team to determine the steps to turn uncertainty into clear decisions and clear results.
Of course, transforming ambiguity into clarity isn't easy. Everything involved in finding the right path -- data analysis, brainstorming, strategy sessions, initiatives, training, the list goes on -- requires devoting time and resources to solving problems as they arise. Otherwise, you'll fight the same fires, and no startup can afford that.
Don't be afraid of ambiguity. Embrace it -- because somewhere inside all that uncertainty is the opportunity to make your business better.