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.