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Restarting on a Clean Sheet of Paper

When you find yourself bogged down in a quagmire of complexity with no obvious positive paths forward, you may be tempted to throw out the mess and start over again. A “green field”, or a “clean sheet of paper” promises a fresh new start with bold new ideas uncluttered by the mess of the previous exercise. Chances are, you will quickly clutter up this new sheet of paper in much the same way as you did the previous one. The reasons for this are simple, but the solution requires a fresh perspective on the problem or challenge itself.

Of course, there is a difference between overcoming challenges that may all be anticipated in the normal course of business and blazing new trails in the course of invention where nobody seems to have a clue what to do next. In the former case, the advice of a seasoned expert who has been through cycles such as these can be invaluable. In either case, the wrong place to start is where people often start in problem-solving exercises, and that is by making a list of current assumptions or answering the question, “What do we know?”

Starting all over while your head is filled with the same assumptions and processes that did not work is likely to lead you to repeating the pattern that put you in the quagmire in the first place. Why would these assumptions be any different from the ones that were used for the plan you just threw out? One thing you learned for certain from that exercise is that the assumptions and choices you made did not lead you to the desired outcome. The best you can hope for is a marginally improved plan as you make adjustments to avoid certain pitfalls along the way.

You’ll convince yourself that this is now the best new plan because you started over from scratch on a clean sheet of paper. But, is it truly the best new plan? What if you truly started over and began, not with assumptions, but with the end in mind. Start with the final outcome that you want to achieve and explore the alternate paths you might take to get there. Be creative in exploring different ways to achieve the goal without relying to heavily on built-in assumptions on how you might execute each option.

Look outside for experts, leaders, gurus and potential partners that may provide expertise or resources to accomplish or accelerate your plans. The assumptions you make for each path will differ, but you should not use these assumptions to make the choices ahead of time until the best path to the end state is clear. Analyze the effectiveness and the risks of each potential pathway and narrow your choices based on the ones that will get you to your goals with the least resistance, cost and complexity. Sometimes the best solutions come not from being stuck in problem-solving mode on the path to your destination, but from analyzing the objective or desired end-state in entirely new ways. A little creativity might produce an entirely different and more successful path, even if it initially seems unfamiliar. Pioneering is not only for the brave; it is the essence of necessity.

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