Succeeding by being out of control

I have a growing interest in understanding the process through which entrepreneurial opportunities unfold from mere ideas. And it is becoming increasingly clear to me that the logic of process is fundamentally different from the logic of cause and effect, which over the years has become my default mode of thinking. In an unfolding process, current actions and events have meaning only when seen against some eventual outcome, whether success or failure; in the moment the seem uncertain, ambiguous or trivial.

In opening this new frontier, I am currently reading The Innovation Journey by Andrew Van de Ven and colleagues, a summary of the Minnesota Innovation Research Program and one of the rare accounts of innovation processes as they unfold. In their reflection on the program, they make the point that entrepreneurs and managers can control only the odds of innovation success and not its actual realization. To make a point about the existence of control bias, they give the example of Franz Klammer, the 1976 Winter Olympic Champion in Men’s downhill skiing, as told in an 1982 book by Bill McKelvey. Klammer won by skiing “out of control” as this video I found of the event readily attests. Staying “in control” would have guaranteed a loss, while being “out of control” at least offered the possibility of winning.

Where am I going with this? What comes to mind is that a business plan, if taken too seriously, is essentially about being in control of pursuing “the” opportunity that it features. The above logic would suggest that not letting go would almost ensure failure. Thus, the best use of a business plan would be as a learning tool, whereby it follows rather than leads. It keeps me free to explore diverging paths with the glimmer of hope that there might be something big around the corner.

But of course, these are just odds. If I succeed, I will likely write a book about it and people might see prophecy in my taking every path along the way. If I do not succeed … well, I simply join the vast majority who never get to write books. And all those paths would not look shiny at all.

The pull of the null

At a dinner last year, I met a partner at a major European VC firm. Upon finding out what I did, he drew me into an ongoing conversation about whether entrepreneurship could be taught and asked me for my opinion on the subject. The consensus opinion in the group was that entrepreneurs were essentially born; I stated that my belief had evolved to be that anyone could be entrepreneur given the right circumstances. This statement was met with disbelief and the VC became agitated by its absurdity. He forcefully made the case about the efforts his firm made in selecting entrepreneurs with the right skills and of the right calibre. I was naturally inclined to play devil’s advocate and noted that many of the carefully selected entrepreneurs still would not succeed, thereby refuting the case for an outright profile of success. Although our conversation ended at that point, it made me think about the merits of my statement.

Aside from the fact that VC firms look for high-caliber entrepreneurial leaders  who can build multi-million-dollar companies, the broader question comes down to this. Where does the burden of proof lie in stating who can and can’t be an entrepreneur? Do we have to prove that entrepreneurs are special or that they are not? The consensus seems to be that because we are more inclined to perceive successful entrepreneurs as special, anyone claiming the contrary has to bear the burden of proof.

But is it that successful entrepreneurs are special because they are successful or that they are successful because they are special? The logic and convention of scientific inference would dictate that we cannot prove but only disprove the statement that entrepreneurs are not special. Until this is done, however, it remains a plausible null hypothesis. To reject it beyond reasonable doubt means that we have to find certain characteristics that widely and consistently show up to underpin successful performance. But after seeing countless studies and diverse cases of entrepreneurship, it seems to me that this is not obvious.

Not only do different skills work in different situation, but also humans have the capacity to prove those who doubt them wrong, overcoming great odds in the face of adversity or lack of necessary knowledge or skill. Thus, it is a question of people’s finding the situations that galvanize their stamina and enkindle their passion. For some this can be the building of a commercial empire; for other running a corner shop. Which of course is another way of saying that anyone can be an entrepreneur given the right circumstances.