Leaving blanks blank: The art of accepting blanks on the canvas

June 7th, 2012 by Patrick Stähler

Recently, I spent time at the most international and diverse university of Germany, the Jacobs University in Bremen with Prof. Steven Ney. I did a seminar on entrepreneurial design. The students were trained already to use the canvas and the course was great. However, their inability to leave blanks on the canvas was striking. What do I mean by this?

We do not like blanks. Long pauses in a conversation confuse and stress us. And since we do not like blanks we fill them. In a conversation, we do small talk. On the canvas, we just fill in the blanks with a kind of small talk as well.

We just don't like blanks! by xkcd (Source http://xkcd.com/608/)

Small talk on the canvas is to just fill in something which sounds good, but has no base, no facts supporting it, not even being a smart idea. If we do not know exactly who our customers are, we wirte Business-to-Business customers or advertising in the box to communicate with our customers. B2B sounds sophisticated but for an entrepreneur who wants to build something on top of her canvas, this is useless at best, dangerous at worst.

While small talk is socially accepted and even expected, filling the blanks on the canvas is dangerous since it pretends we have solved this problem and we move on to another building block to fill. That is deadly if you really want to execute your idea into reality.

A good test is to go back to the four essential questions or a business model.

  • What excites your customers?
  • How do you create the value for your customers?
  • How do you earn money?
  • Who is on our team and why?

Try to answer these questions in one and two sentences each and test them with somebody outside your team. Does she understand you? Would a customer think: “Wow what a great idea, how can I become a customer?” Would your pitch motivate people to spent time with you and your idea?

Designing businesses is not just an exercise where you have to fill all blanks on the canvas. It is not a school exam where answering all question is a key to an A.

Designing a business is art. Designing is an endless process to gain insights, to ideate, to develop assumptions based on insights, to challenge your assumptions, getting more to the point, to test with customers and accepting that a blank can be left for some time as a blank. Having a blank on the canvas is better than to have some useless small talk on the canvas.

And this phenomenon, I have seen a lot when I work with would-be entrepreneurs regardless of their age. Fight this! Withstand small talk on the canvas! Leave blanks blank!

4 Responses to “Leaving blanks blank: The art of accepting blanks on the canvas”

  1. Kay Plantes Says:

    I learned the art of the pause from a wonderful organizational development consultant who used silence to force leaders to start to speak more truthfully about the situation in the company. It was so powerful. The silence has its own voice. In business model innovation work I share your view totally – silence works as it communicates so much. For example, when no one knows what the value promise is, leaders finally “get” that they are competing as a commodity.

  2. Suzanne D Pollock Says:

    Patrick, this is such an important point. When helping teams to plan a strategy, I have always used the mantra ‘gaps are good’ (as they tell us what info/ insights we need to generate). People have an innate desire to complete a process quickly, but with strategy development it needs to be a journey of discovery and the answers don’t always stare you in the face.

    This is why leadership is so important in the strategy development process, so that it is OK to have a gap (for a while, anyway) and allow time for discovery.

    Don’t fill a gap with crap, I say. It might tick the box, but it could weaken or even kill your the success of your strategy. The power of the subconscious mind also comes into play.

    A gap can fuel subconscious thought process and reveal insights (the aha! moment) so that a few hours or days later, insights are revealed and can be tested.

    Thanks for this great post, Patrick. Regards, Suzanne D Pollock (Masterplan Your Brand)

  3. jennifer Sertl Says:

    I wish service based companies ran more like manufacturing companies and manufacturing companies ran much more like service based industries. It is the dance between the tangible and untangible that creates both innovation and value chains. I liked manufacturing as I really got a sense of chain flow and process and began to apply it to my coahcing practice. Asking each person to design you have 200 watts of brilliance a month – how will you reverse engineer how you deploy. We tend not to create buffers in our own life so it is no wonder we do not leave buffers for projects we are on. We need more white space in our projects and in our own day plans. After all – good ideas need us to stand still enough for them to find us. . . .

  4. Vijay Says:

    Blank – can be a time for us to look around for ideas and insight

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