Many years ago my grandfather gave me a toolbox filled with old tools - a hammer, all sorts of screw drivers, a small hacksaw and an old hand drill with a dozen dull drill bits. I was six years old and had always loved to play with those tools in his basement workshop.

The screw drivers were especially amazing. I learned quickly that I could disassemble almost anything and reverse engineer the contents. It didn’t matter if it was a new toy, my old train set or our telephone. They were assembled with screws, each had their secrets and I was going to crack the code. I poured over their innards like a voodoo witch reading the entrails of a chicken - it was magic, pure magic.

Needless to say my parents weren’t delighted with a disaassmbled telephone, that was the final experiment. In the 1960s phones were wired directly into the wall - yes, I disconected that too - and you couldn’t run out to Best Buy to buy a new one. I was punished, the tool box was taken away and not returned until my 15th birthday. I was taught a lesson: don’t experiment, quit being so curious and for God’s sake don’t break shit.

Over the years I’ve had the pleasure of working with a lot of smart people and innovative IT organizations. I’ve worked with startups, small businesses as well as Fortune five hundreds. Regardless of size they share many of the same traits and I’m often frustrated when they adopt the same early 60s philosophy laid down by my very conservative parents - they’re scared to death of breaking shit. 

There’s hell to pay when you break shit. 

You’re called into someone’s office to explain. You’re ridiculed in a meeting. You can’t be trusted to handle the cool stuff. There are consequences regardless of how fast you fix it. Organizations like this innovate slowly. Managers often say things like: ‘if it ain’t broken don’t fix it’. They are the stuff of innovation anti-patterns.

The fear of breaking shit ultimately results in endless design meetings, analysis paralysis, more rules, too many standards and the loss of all things pragmatic. The organization develops an aversion to temporary failure while innovation and optimization take a back seat to the ‘protect and maintain’ mindset. 

These teams have also dispensed with a valuable learning tool. You see, in order to put it all back together you actually need to understand how it worked in the first place. In order to innovate, you need to break the old, tinker with the new and deploy the results.

No startup can afford to be timid. A sign should be displayed on the product development team’s office walls with the caption: WE BREAK SHIT in 100 point font. It’s a take no prisoners pirate mentality that let’s great teams build great products without fear.