Intentional Iteration: Learning from Hard Knocks

Last week, Cliff Oxford of The New York Times weighed in on the ongoing conversation of entrepreneurship education with the article “Introducing the next level: Can you teach entrepreneurship?” In a post in March 2012, I commented on this topic when The Wall Street Journal debated a similar question.  In that post, I suggested that a focus on entrepreneurial leadership is one way of resolving this debate as it involves teaching students more than just cost-benefit analysis.

I return to this topic today because I think Oxford highlights a new question in this debate   –whether he realizes it or not!  As you read Oxford’s article and the responding comments, the interesting question that arises for me is not one of can entrepreneurship be taught but can and how do entrepreneur’s learn?

Oxford makes the statement that entrepreneurship is “90% hard knocks and 10% academia.”  I am not going to debate this point (though I don’t agree with it) rather I want to highlight that hard knocks alone aren’t enough for an entrepreneur to succeed.  Rather an entrepreneur needs to know how to understand his/her “hard knocks”, learn from them, and use this learning to propel new action.  “Hard knocks” have no value if an entrepreneur doesn’t know how to learn from his/her experiences.  To illustrate his point, Oxford quotes Bernie Marcus, co-founder of Home Depot, as saying that for every five decisions his team makes they hope two are right.  Some entrepreneurs may interpret this as meaning, “If we get 40% of our decisions correct, we have a chance of being as successful  as Home Depot.”  The better takeaway is to ask what and how does Marcus’ team learn from the three decisions that don’t go as planned and how do they use this experience to guide future actions.  Entrepreneurship is not just about making more decisions correctly but it is about knowing how to learn from “incorrect” decisions and how to bring that knowledge forward to inform the next decision.

At Babson, we refer to this process of learning from “hard knocks” as intentional iteration.  In today’s unknowable world, an entrepreneur can never know enough to avoid hard knocks.   Rather successful entrepreneurs have developed the thinking to learn from thier hard knocks.  These entrepreneurs engage the act-learn-build cycle to iterate from hard knocks.  For some individuals this is a natural way of thinking, for the rest of us this approach can be learned –be it in a formal classroom, in an executive course, or through coaching and mentoring.  We need to be teaching more entrepreneurial leader’s how to intentionally iterate from hard knocks as this is what will form the basis of their success.

Looking beyond “ramen-slurping garage-dwellers”

Check out this video of Eric Ries, Lean Startup author in a recent Fast Company article by Noah Robischon, entitled Entrepreneurs Are Everywhere. Eric Ries Knows What They Have In Common.

Ries asks us to look beyond the image of the “ramen-slurping garage-dweller” that is often portrayed in movies and other forms of media and to recognize that entrepreneurs are everywhere, in all types of organization.  Ries also provides a broad definition of a start-up: “a human institution designed to create something new under conditions of extreme uncertainty”.

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Auto-analytics -an easy way for entrepreneurial leaders to build their self-awareness

Jim Wilson, one of the co-authors of The New Entrepreneurial Leader, has an exciting article in the September 2012 edition of Harvard Business Review titled “You, By the Numbers.”  Wilson introduces the topic of auto-analytics –a voluntary process of collecting data about oneself in order to improve.  I advocate that all aspiring entrepreneurial leaders, and educators of entrepreneurial leaders, read the article.    Besides the fact that Wilson is a talented writer who always provides his reader with engaging insights, auto-analytics has an obvious connection to helping entrepreneurial leaders develop their self-awareness.  However, as Wilson points out data tracking alone is not useful to developing self-awareness if “observation doesn’t progress to analysis and intervention.”  This statement highlights an important point about self-awareness more generally.

With entrepreneurial leadership, we talk extensively about the need for a leader to take the time to reflect on who they are.  At Babson, we have been revising our curriculum to provide more opportunity for aspiring entrepreneurial leaders to better understand who they are in terms of their skills, style, values, identity, and emotional intelligence.  However, self-awareness, as Wilson points out, doesn’t just end with understanding who you are.  Self-awareness starts with understanding and continues with using that understanding to alter, change, and supplement “who I am.”  Self-awareness based action might involve changes in your behavior, changes in who you work with to better balance your strengths and weaknesses, changes in your view of how identity intersects with your context, or changes in your work flow.  Just as we expect entrepreneurial leaders to integrate analysis with action as they pursue new opportunities, we expect entrepreneurial leaders to do the same when they approach their own self-awareness.

This summer, I took auto-analytics to heart and spent a month (while my 3 children were at overnight camp) documenting my energy flow and engagement in my workday.  I came to some important conclusions about the ebbs and flow of my productivity, the time I needed to for writing and conceptualizing, and how the interaction between meetings and thinking time affected my day.  This fall, as chaos returned to Babson I have made significant changes in my day including how I use email, how I use writing time, when I am willing to schedule personal and professional meetings, and when I work-out.  Two weeks in, I am still feeling levels of engagement and focus that I haven’t felt for a long time.

As you hone your entrepreneurial leadership or look for innovative ways to teach aspiring entrepreneurial leaders self-awareness, I encourage you to consider engaging auto-analytics.   Wilson identifies a number of applications that can be used to better understand your physical, thinking and emotional self.  You might also turn to the work by Gretchen Spreitzer, University of Michigan, who has developed and taught an “energy audit” that provides a less technical approach for analyzing energy flow and its impact on productivity, happiness, and engagement.  Whether you use your smartphone or your pen and paper, taking stock of who you are is the first step towards entrepreneurial leadership but taking action based on who you are is what will make you an entrepreneurial leader.