Killing Innovation with Corner Cases and Consensus

I was visiting a friend whose company teaches executives how to communicate effectively. He had just filmed the second of a series of videos called, Speaking to the Big Dogs: How mid-level managers can communicate effectively with C-level executives  (CEO, VP’s, General Managers, etc.)  As we were plotting marketing strategy, I mentioned that the phrase “Speaking to the Big Dogs” might end up as his corporate brand.  And that he might want to think about aligning all his video and Internet products under that name. 74HGZA3MZ6SV

We were happily brainstorming when one of his managers spoke up and said, “Well, the phrase ‘Big Dogs’ might not work because it might not translate well in our Mexican and Spanish markets.”  Hmm, that’s a fair comment, I thought, surprised they even had international locations. “How big are your Mexican and Spanish markets,” I asked? “Well, we’re not in those markets today… but we might be some day.”  I took a deep breath and asked, “Ok, if you were, what percentage of your sales do you think these markets would be in 5 years?”   “I guess less than 5%,” was the answer.

Now I mention this conversation not because the objection was dumb, but because objections like these happen all the time when you’re brainstorming.  And when you are brainstorming you really do want to hear all ideas and all possible pitfalls.  But entrepreneurial leaders sometimes forget that in startups, you can’t allow a “corner case” to derail fearless decision making.

Corner Cases
A corner case is an objection that may be:

  1. technically reasonable
  2. may have a probability of occurring
  3. its probability of occurring is lower than your probability of running out of money.

I’ve noticed that corner case comments are directly proportional to the intelligence of the people in the room.  The smarter the team the more objections you’ll have – and they’ll all be technically and theoretically possible.

Corner Cases and Consensus are For Large Companies
Carefully considering each and every possible outcome before you proceed with a decision is something large companies with large revenues, shareholders and employees need to do.  

Achieving consensus about every corner case from each stakeholder in the room  is something large companies with large revenues, shareholders and employees need to do.  

Unlike large corporations, startup meetings are not about achieving consensus for every objection raised.  They are about forward motion, momentum and feedback loops (i.e. Customer Development.)

Calculate the Odds
The heuristic I suggest is: hear the corner case objections, make the objector calculate the odds, if the potential damage estimate is low (probability of the event occurring multiplied by its ability to put you out of business) keep the meeting focussed and move on.  If you do this consistently your team will catch on.

You’ll be spending your time on what matters, rather what’s theoretically possible. For a startup “No Corner Cases” needs to be an integral part of your corporate DNA.

Any startup that’s striving for consensus on corner cases instead of speed and tempo will be out of business.

Focus on Speed and Tempo

15 Responses

  1. Thank you for legitimizing my “dictatorial” behavior. The heuristic you are suggesting is particularly helpful, as I don’t like to shot people down during the brainstorming sessions, but don’t want to drown in pointless details. Excellent advice I will practice relentlessly :-)

  2. But you can’t go on false assumptions – 45% of the youth in CA are hispanic – so it might matter even if the only market is the US!

    But over analysis may imply paralysis.

    • Still, how much of the target audience is youth, and how many Hispanic-Americans actually prefer machine-translated Spanish over English?

  3. The processes used to generate consensus typically are just used to get everyone to get it off their chest. Then, business as usual.

    To build consensus you must work back to the generic. You cannot get consensus on specifics.

  4. A commenter on Hacker News got what I was saying better than I did:

    “… the problem is when people attempt to use corner cases to destroy a good idea.

    Having a valid metric of when corner cases become truly important is a great way of avoiding people destroying ideas before they have a chance to come to fruition, simply because of corner cases that may or may not have major impact.

    In the article he even states that it’s good to hear the corner cases. You just have to make sure they don’t rule the day unless they actually will have major impact.”

    Yep, that’s what I meant.

    steve

  5. [...] Killing Innovation with Corner Cases and Consensus « Steve Blank in startups, you can’t allow a “corner case” to derail fearless decision making. (tags: startup productivity) [...]

  6. [...] Dion Hinchliffe pointed to an article this morning – Killing Innovation with Corner Cases and Consensus – I assumed I knew what it was about, and wanted to read [...]

  7. Wow been there, done that, and I hadn’t realized what happened until reading Steve’s excellent explanation here.

    In the early days, we did exactly the type of exercise to breed corner cases – gather really smart people together and whiteboard some blue sky brainstorms. Dangerous stuff, to be sure!

  8. [...] recently read Steve Blank’s article on killing innovation with corner cases, and it really struck a chord for me.  He correctly points out that this problem is even more [...]

  9. I especially like the “calculate the odds” part. There is an infinitude of things to worry about so it’s important to be able to figure out what’s *not* worth further concern.

  10. The fact that the cutoff for corner cases gets to smaller and smaller probabilities as a company grows larger and larger is the Arrow effect in a nutshell.

  11. Steve,

    I am slowly reading and enjoying all of your site. Most all of the comments are good as well.

    Apropos to this post’s topic, on nearly every one of your posts there is a comment that seems to be a perfect example of taking some kind of exception over a corner case. The problem is that it takes experience to know what is exceptional and what is probable. And the confidently inexperienced are many … and vocal.

    Thanks for the posts!

  12. [...] Even with information from all three views, founders need to remember there will never be enough information to make a perfect decision. [...]

  13. [...] Making: http://steveblank.com/2009/06/05…Killing Innovation with Corner Cases and Consensus: http://steveblank.com/2009/04/22…“Speed and Tempo” – Fearless Decision Making for Startups: [...]

  14. [...] Steve Blank on why startups should avoid deliberations over “corner cases,” i.e., potential problems with a very low [...]

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