January 17, 2023
These days it seems like everyone is looking to become more entrepreneurial. It’s a word that’s often used by big companies on the hunt for innovative thinkers and new ways of doing things. But sadly, the workplace doesn’t always work for those with entrepreneurial minds. It is too rigid, too hierarchical, too conventional. Entrepreneurs, by nature, are rule-breakers, always looking for new opportunities and fresh ideas that could change the world. From my research, they differ from other businesspeople in some fundamental ways – six ways, to be exact.
They possess mindsets – six counter-conventional, break-the-rules mindsets – that enable them to think and act in ways that fly in the face of what we teach in business schools and how we think managers should run a successful business. They interpret and respond differently to events, circumstances, and situations than their more conventionally minded business peers.
But it’s a myth to say that an entrepreneurial mindset is only present in the brains of entrepreneurs. Rather, they can occasionally be found in very large and well-established companies – and everyone can benefit from learning how to become more entrepreneurially-minded. For managers, creating a workplace where the entrepreneurial mindset can thrive involves an assessment of the culture and working practices. But how?
Switch your knitting
For many entrepreneurs, sticking to one set of core competencies simply isn’t going to cut it. Instead, their mantra is ‘Yes, we can!’. If the current path isn’t going to take them where they want to go then it’s time to set out on a new path, they figure. Breaking the rules is about courage, positive change, and making the world a better place – not staying in the same spot.
Take Amazon’s launch of the Kindle, for example. It was January 2004. Apple had launched the iPod and introduced the iTunes store, which was named Time magazine’s Coolest Invention of 2003. Sales of physical CDs were slumping in favour of digital music downloads, and Jeff Bezos was concerned that books might be next. Amazon had built a competitive advantage in the distribution business – with a vast selection, low prices, and quick delivery of its products – but these benefits would not apply in a new digital business where there was nothing physical to store or ship.
Though no one at Amazon knew anything about building hardware, Bezos and Steve Kessel – who he had appointed to head up this new venture – decided to say ‘Yes, we can!’ and figure out the details as they want. They identified what the customer would want from a better e-reader and focused on building the competencies, acquiring the necessary resources, and hiring the right team, and were strategic in their marketing and pricing strategies. Conventions were broken and Amazon made what seemed impossible – a device customers could use to store and download countless books at the touch of a button – possible.
The power of audacity
Within the workplace, a ‘Yes, we can!’ mindset can help identify new innovations and paths that lead to incredible business growth. But, as we can see from Amazon, this statement is only the first step. What follows is an acknowledgement that your team is about to stray from your comfort zone and their success could require a new string of competencies, capabilities, networks, and people.
Having teams with the confidence and courage to break conventions is crucial to developing this entrepreneurial mindset within your workplace. Some say it’s seeing the cup as half-full, rather than half-empty, but fostering a workplace culture where teams can be audacious enables them to take full advantage of the opportunity at hand. It’s important, too, that failure isn’t seen as an endpoint. It’s a stop along the entrepreneurial journey that should be learnt from, rather than dwelt on.
Give permission to fail
On the topic of failure, many large companies have well-established procedures for getting new initiatives underway. Why? Many company leaders, at their core, aren’t big risk takers. They prefer certainty. Which, in turn, means there are lots of people, processes, and perspectives that can say ‘no’ to anything which breaks the company’s conventional rules. But it’s still possible to a visionary and look at the entrepreneurial way of doing something in-house.
Entrepreneurs have a bias for action and learning by doing
If you work with teammates or report to a manager, do you ask their permission for every step you take in a project? Surely not. You’re expected, in most managerial and business settings, to gather the necessary information and exercise good judgement in deciding what to do next.
In today’s rapidly changing industries, autonomous decision-making matters and embracing the uncertainty as a company or team leader can coax your people into experimenting with new ideas and thinking more counter-conventionally. Mitigate the risks where you can and empower your team to be brave in their decisions, knowing that they have the skills and resources to make the best choices with the information they have.
In my experience, a proposed new idea or project is, at the outset, little more than a bundle of hypotheses that will either prove to be correct or rejected through experiments. Entrepreneurs have a bias for action and learning by doing. Not all of us are wired that way but within an established workplace, we can often find ourselves in an ‘analysis paralysis’, unable to move beyond thinking and talking through ideas in long meetings. But a key question to ask yourself and your team at the outset of a new project is ‘Why won’t my idea work?’. Challenging yours and others’ assumptions will help you identify potential pitfalls and move forward.
Go forth and thrive
Managers who can identify and develop the entrepreneurial mindsets within their teams and create a workplace that empowers employees to think counter-conventionally, are giving themselves the best chance of securing new innovations and opportunities for business success. So, what are you waiting for? Mastering these mindsets won’t happen without action and change. Go forth and thrive!
John Mullins is Associate Professor of Management Practice at London Business School, and author of Break the Rules! The 6 Counter–Conventional Mindsets of Entrepreneurs That Can Help Anyone Change the World (published by Wiley, £21.99).