The Universal Challenge of Entrepreneurs and Innovators

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I recently spoke to a room full of 85 diverse entrepreneurs. I invited everyone who had started any type of venture…as founder or partner…private or public…for-profit or non-profit…solo or joint…to please stand. For this audience that included pretty much everyone in the room, as I expected. Then I asked everyone whose venture had played out as they anticipated when they began to stay standing. If they had the same product…same technology…same market niche…same customer profile…same revenues…same growth rate—in other words if their business matched their business plan—would they continue standing, and would everyone else please sit down.

Not one person remained standing…and I don’t think anyone in the room was surprised. I heard a few chuckles at even the thought that there might be anyone who could make such a claim. Niccolo Machiavelli wrote, “There is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage than the creation of a new order of things.” He was talking about politics and government but it applies equally well to any new venture. It is the universal experience of everyone who has ever tried: It’s not going to go exactly like you think it will. You will have to make adjustments.

I’m not saying that having a vision and a plan to get there are unimportant. On the contrary, those things are crucial. But it’s just as important to be skilled at rapidly learning from experience and adjusting, in an iterative process of gradually discovering success. Anyone who goes into a new venture believing the important questions have all been answered, that no revisions are needed, is almost certainly doomed to fail.

This, in my opinion, is a flaw of far too many business mentors. These are often business executives who have had to make just the sort of adjustments I’m describing. Unfortunately, their take-away from those experiences is often that they have now found the answers, so everyone should do what they did. They would be more effective if they helped those they mentor develop the capacity to find their own unique solutions.

In education, where is the emphasis on developing this essential cognitive capability? Where is it in the curriculum of MBA and entrepreneurship programs? And if aspiring entrepreneurs are not being taught how to develop such a critical skill, what’s the likelihood of their future success? If there is any one attribute that every entrepreneur or innovator needs, it is this ability to learn and adjust and figure things out on the fly…and the successful entrepreneurs who I’ve talked to all know it.

It’s also clear that some people are better at this than others. Sure, some individuals manage to get there on their own but most of us could use a little guidance in how to optimize this personal capability. I believe it’s something that anyone can learn to do but it’s not inevitable. The challenge is to not only recognize that we need to be doing it; but to become proficient at it.

As an entrepreneur or innovator, what are you doing to develop this cognitive skill set, in yourself and in your team? Have you even given it much thought? In a sense, it comes down to business savvy—not whether you have it or not, but how skillfully you can develop and apply it. In today’s business environment, doesn’t everyone need to be innovative and entrepreneurial? Isn’t everyone facing this universal challenge?

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