How to Innovate by Breaking the Law
Breaking the law…for innovation.
Recently, a coding boot camp in this area was forced to shut down – one which generated hundreds of coders who snapped up in demand jobs – because some government agency didn’t recognize them as a “non-accredited educational institution”
Education doesn’t just happen in a stuffy room with boring lecturers.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Everyone knows Uber, and you have probably heard about the court battles that they had to fight, in city after city, to operate and provide a much better service than the taxi services there. While Uber is not a “taxi” service, it provided much of the same service as one, and as such, raised the ire of embedded services who had already locked these kinds of services down. Both the taxi companies and the cities sued Uber for operating without official licenses as a taxi service when they really weren’t one at all.
Some people call this permissionless innovation: simply launching something in a “void of laws” – where there is not specific law prohibiting something, (or even if there is one, and you work in the haze of government delay and inaction against you) you launch your business, then push like hard to get a ton of very happy customers for your business, then this mass of customers for your business become evangelists for your business, pushing hard for the laws or processes or culture to be changed in order for the business to remain open. Give the people what they want, in the vacuum of no law expressly forbidding it, and see if you can gain enough traction and happy customers so that they can advocate on your behalf.
But did you know that your staid cable company did the exact same thing when it was launched?
Cable companies were founded when technically oriented folks had trouble getting signal from far off TV stations. They figured that it might help to build a bigger antenna to capture the signals in their backyards. Their neighbors, seeing this, probably started asking what the antenna was all about.
I can imagine the over the fence conversation among the neighbors. “Sounds great Jim, I wish I knew how to build an antenna like that so I could watch the Packers game too.” Jim, seeing that his neighbors might want the same thing, got a little enterprising and probably thought he could run a cable to his neighbors’ homes and charge them a little something for the time and trouble. Of course, he was stealing and reselling signal without paying the TV station for it, but at the time, there were no laws stopping him from doing it. By the time the TV stations were able to reach out and ask for money to pay for the signal they were stealing, the cable companies were big enough and embedded enough that not only could they easily afford it, they owned the distribution network. They became legal.
Thus the cable industry was born, from permissionless innovation.
Back to the coding boot camp. Recently, there is a huge demand for programmers, coders who can code in the latest languages and frameworks. Companies in the Bay Area are paying top dollar for people with the right skills, but those skills are not being taught in typical colleges and universities. Enter the coding boot camp. These quasi-educational institutions provide one thing and one thing only, intensive training in these hot new programming languages in a very short period, ranging from 12 weeks to 2 years. They might not go into the high-level conceptual side of computer programming but provide a highly tactical education. Many graduates from other colleges and universities, finding themselves without work, despite their degree, are taking these classes in order to learn to code and get a job in that space.
Some of these coding boot camps are unconventional – some are live-in, boarding house type places where you live and code 24/7, other are more traditional, but they all provide an accelerated learning process for their students. They are new models of education: no longer is the standard 4-year college degree the norm – for these fast moving fields, getting a basic education and getting into the workforce to gain experience is key. Things change so quickly in this space that technology is completely different in way less than 4 years.
As such, these institutions bend or break the standard “laws” for what an education institution is, so the government freaks out and denies them licenses to operate. It doesn’t matter that they provide a useful service to many students who are willing to pay for it since they don’t fit the mold of what the government agency feels an educational institution should be, they are denied.
If you asked me education occurs everywhere, it doesn’t have to occur in a room. It doesn’t have to occur online, it occurs everywhere. How can you say that something specific is education or not? If someone gets taught a useful skill that is then used and applied in real life to either, make money or do something useful in the world then that’s education, and should be considered education not some government flunky somewhere saying that this is education.
How does this apply to you? Well, if you think about it, just like a city, your enterprise also has both governance and culture to ensure that hierarchies, approvals, and processes are followed. Just like in a city, innovations like ride sharing services, coding houses, and cable companies challenge the status quo. There are the same kind of spoken or unspoken laws like the kind of laws that force taxi companies to have medallions within your organization.
You need to think about ways in which to bend or break those laws to allow the innovations to happen internally. If you think about it, this is one of the differences between larger enterprises and small startups is that startups don’t have a huge process laden infrastructure internally,
Think about your organization as a city. Would you have banned something like Uber, starting up shop and disrupting the order of things? If so, think about how you can bend or break some of your internal corporate “laws”. Who knows what kind of interesting innovations you might generate. Don’t be the city that tries to kick something out before you can even see if will improve the lives of your citizens.
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