USB Director explains how to develop entrepreneurs
Think of a lemon. Now how many uses you can think of for a lemon?
This was the unusual question posed by Professor John Powell, Director of the University of Stellenbosch Business School at the recent Symposium on Entrepreneurship for Human Development hosted by the University under the banner of its HOPE Project. The event, held at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study (STIAS), attracted over 200 people, many of them entrepreneurs.
But there was a purpose to the question posed by Powell, as he went on to highlight how constrained adult thinking can become.
The key thrust was to define what characterises entrepreneurial thinking. Not just for those starting their own businesses but also in terms of ‘intra-preneurship’ (entrepreneurship in big companies).
“Being an entrepreneur is part knowledge based – it is about having the correct knowledge and the correct attitudes. But what sort of knowledge is that? And finally, how do we promote this knowledge?” asked Powell.
He explained that most of the academic literature talks about the “need for autonomy” or having some freedom to act. It is also important, he said, to have an innovative spirit, and inevitably entrepreneurs are also prepared to take a risk.
“Entrepreneurs are also competitively aggressive; but it depends on what your motivation is when being competitively aggressive – if your intention is to do others in, then it will not go well for you. There is a cooperative component of competition, where the size of the cake is increased as well as your own slice of it.”
The origins of entrepreneurship
But where does this entrepreneurism come from and how does it arise?
“It arises from interaction with the environment; it arises from the working together of a team – much like a sailing crew. Why use that analogy? Because a calm sea does not make a good sailor – going through rough seas makes better sailors,” said Powell.
“Then there is innovativeness. Jean Piaget was a psychologist who looked at children; and he made an interesting observation about how they think, how innovative they are – and that is why I asked you about the lemon. How many uses have you thought of for the lemon?” he asked the audience.
The response from the audience was between five and ten. Then someone said “unlimited”.
“That is a great answer,” said Powell. “What was interesting about Piaget’s findings was that if you ask a child of about two, they are probably not so sure but they may have seen mom make lemonade, so they say ‘lemonade’. If you ask a person of 14 or 15, they will come up with about ten answers.
‘Put the lemon in the freezer’
“I asked my son this question when he was about six, which is the age Piaget found that gave the maximum number uses. My son’s answer was: ‘You can put the lemon in the freezer, that will make it really hard and then we’ll go down to the town and throw it through the jeweler’s window and get all the diamonds and sell it, and then buy a submarine and go down and get gold from the seabed’. I think that is a perfectly reasonable answer.”
What happens, Powell explained, is that as adults we become constrained by expectations of what that answer is, and we become more constrained by our expectations with what the right answer is.”
Powell went on to say that book knowledge is important, but tacit knowledge is also critical.
“So the question is how do we get the tacit knowledge from one entrepreneur to another? Traditionally people have written manuals on ‘how to be an entrepreneur’, but this doesn’t completely do the job. The point is to find ways to transfer the knowledge from one person to another; like learning to sail – you have to get out there. You have to learn how to be an entrepreneur by being an entrepreneur.”
He pointed out that venture capitalists will often not invest in someone the first time they put together a business proposal. “It’s because they haven’t failed. Calm seas don’t make good sailors.”
Powell said that the means to pass on this tacit knowledge lay in apprenticeship, mentoring, setting up communicative structures such as workshops, and setting up laboratories which are spaces where people can fail in a safe environment.