Break down the rules

In order to manage the world around us, we cast a net of words around it. Like the branding of a steer on the open range, names identify objects, and concepts, as being in our possession. To give a thing a name is to own it.

The advantage is obvious. Labels facilitate communication. The disadvantages, on the other hand, are subtle but powerful. Names and labels, by their very nature, constrict our view of the world. Labels shape the world for us, and can also reduce, rather than expand our potential.

When teaching a class on creativity I’ll often pass out decks of playing cards ask the participants to build the tallest tower they can in 10 minutes. Towers two cards high are common, four high are rare. Yet towers of 10 or more are easily doable in the time allowed.

Most people insist on seeing the cards as cards. They use the cards according to all the rules they know about the proper care and handling of cards. No bending, no folding, no mutilating. Only when you see past the name, can you see it for what it is. Ignoring the label, what are “cards”? They’re nothing but stiff pieces of paper perfectly suited for folding, bending and mutilating. Fold a stiff piece of paper into a “V” and you have the perfect building material. A child knows that, because a child doesn’t yet know the “rules” for playing with cards.

As the world become more complex we’re tempted to label everything and deal with the world purely on the basis of those labels. To a large degree this works, but to be different – to distinguish ourselves from the pack – requires we go back to first principles.

When we think of the Internet, what do we think of? “Internet” is a name we’ve given to something… what is that something? In other words, what are the attributes that make up the Internet? What makes it different from everything we had before? What is it that it offers, that we didn’t have before? And how do we use it?

First, let’s get rid of some of the nonsense. It’s not a “New Economy,” it’s not “New way of doing business,” it’s not the “Solution to all societies’ problems.” None of this is to suggest, even for an instant, that the Internet isn’t an impressive achievement, but it is just a tool, albeit a powerful one.

The Internet concept, combined with the ubiquity of the computer, offers us the following: incredibly easy access to the rapid transmission of information. You can use this perspective of the Internet as a lens through which to examine a process. The objective is to identify opportunity. Consider the following example:

When an engineer wants to understand the importance of a component in a bridge, one tactic is to pretend the component doesn’t exist. Then ask if the bridge will fall down or stay up.

Here’s an exercise for you, the reader. Imagine building a company based on the Napster model without the Internet as the means of data transfer. Instead? Use the Canadian Postal service.

Okay… okay… clean up the coffee you’ve spewed over this fine article and just pretend okay? Sheesh.

There are four primary transactions:

1) Mailing your listing of sharable MP3s to a central database.

2) Mailing a query to that database and receiving a response.

3) Mailing a request to a holder of an MP3 you want to steal copy (I meant “copy”… honest).

4) Processing all the requests you receive and mailing the MP3s to the requesters.

Oh yes, you can charge no fees to the users, but somehow make money doing this.

This company would never get off the ground. It’s an obvious failure from the start, until you take the “Internet Lens” and pass it over the business process… thereby reducing all times for delivery of information to about “zero”… then the magic happens.

Your next exercise? Take that same lens and pass it over ALL of your existing business processes. Does the magic happen?

de Jager is a well known, creative curmudgeon, keynote speaker/consultant on issues relating to change and the management of technology. You can contact him at