An Entrepreneurial Mindset: Nature or nurture?

13 August 2016 Workplace Creativity

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Business Innovation Brief

Entrepreneurial mindset: is it an inborn trait, or can it be learned? The nature/nurture debate impinges on how we conceive and operate industrial firms, commercial enterprises and complex organisations.

Typically, we see positive attributes at the firm, unit or departmental level as premised in the capabilities and features of individuals. So firms are adaptable, teams are flexible, units are responsive because of the people working within them.

What leaders want to know

Leaders ask:

  • “Are our people creative enough?”
  • “How well do they cope with uncertainty?”
  • “Are they enterprising? Will they take “good risks” to drive our growth?”

Leaders who think people are capable of change invest in their people and in the development of their organisations. Leaders who don’t believe people can develop, divest.

I think it's time to challenge leaders on the question of nature versus nurture. Click To Tweet
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The example of creativity as a learned aptitude

More than 60 years ago, advertising executive Alex Osborn asked the question: why does my creative team sometimes fail? By exploring the conditions of failure versus success, he identified some key differences in how people were working that are now widely accepted as critical in deliberate group creativity.

These include the principles:

  1. Distinguish generative thought from analysis and evaluation, and give each its proper time.
  2. Defer judgement to promote divergent thinking.

These principles can be verbally transmitted and modelled through behaviour. This means they are teachable. Whole organisational cultures have been premised on them; therein, they operate as norms. Because they can be transmitted, these principles can be taught.

Anytime we claim something – in this case, deliberate group creativity – can be taught, we side with “nurture”. If the time for nurturing creativity was 50 years ago, now is the time for entrepreneurism.

Painting: Only artistry, or also an occasion to collaborate, experiment and create?
Kate Hammer (2011). All rights reserved.

Nurturing entrepreneurism

Sarasvathy and Venkataraman (2011) advance the notion that the entrepreneurial method is analogous to the scientific method. In other words, it is “a generalized method… a form of reasoning and logic” on a par with arithmetic, reading, writing, basic scientific reasoning and “at least as important as civic engagement, civil discourse and the critical development of moral and ethical judgment” (120). Crucial to their argument is the conviction that, like the scientific method, the entrepreneurial method can be taught. To accept this, our thinking must shift from who entrepreneurs are, to what entrepreneurs do. We must come to understand the mechanisms by which they operate in and on the world, to (as Eric Ries puts it) create new value under conditions of extreme uncertainty. As we understand those mechanisms, we can teach them.

By teaching the methods of entrepreneurism, we make it possible for more and more people to contribute to systems that create value under conditions of uncertainty.

Entrepreneurial mindset

The Kern Family Foundation in the USA defines the entrepreneurial mindset as the “know-why” that should accompany the technical “know-how” that engineering graduates bring to the world of work.

According to the foundation: “Entrepreneurially minded individuals:

  • have a constant curiosity about our changing world and employ a contrarian view of accepted solutions;
  • habitually connect information from many sources to gain insight and manage risk;
  • create value for others from unexpected opportunities as well as persist through, and learn from, failure.

Through a collaborative partnership of colleges and universities called the Kern Engineering Education Network (KEEN), the foundation supports the transformation of engineering education. KEEN is an example of the nurture approach to capabilities development.

A contrasting approach appears to be taken by the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation. While the two organisations seem to share a common belief in the impact responsible entrepreneurs make, the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation “identifies, selects, and invests in individuals who show potential greatness over the long-term through its Scholarship and Fellowship opportunities”. The cultivation of talent is also something that the Founders Institute undertakes, outside the framework of formal higher education. The focus is on the individual entrepreneur, not the culture of learning that situates and conditions the individual as s/he develops.

Culture as the inevitable factor in success

Earlier I suggested that we challenge leaders about their preconceptions of their people’s potential to collaboratively innovate. I’m not suggesting that individual differences don’t matter. I am arguing however for investments not in the talented few, but in the many able people who — if taught how to bring relevant curiosity to their work, how to usefully make unexpected connections, how to work with others to create new value –would make meaningful contributions.

Ultimately, agility at the organisational level is about learning and empowerment amongst individuals. Click To Tweet Culture is an inevitable factor in successfully fostering entrepreneurism. Click To Tweet

This article was first posted on ISPIM (International Society for Professionals in Innovation Management) here.