I have written in this column before about whether entrepreneurs are made or born (January 18). As I noted in that column, the issue is no longer the subject of debate. Entrepreneurs can be made, that much is clear. Unfortunately, the culmination of that debate begs a new question: What do aspiring entrepreneurs need to learn?
The most fruitful research into this question has identified a number of cognitive skills that “expert entrepreneurs” possess. Cognitive skills are, in short, unique ways of thinking. Entrepreneurs who have been examined to reveal the cognitive skills they possess are usually NOT able to articulate them. They are aware that they’ve developed capabilities to convert disparate resources into profitable opportunities, but they can’t exactly say how they do it.
Research has identified distinct patterns in the thought processes in an exceedingly diverse set of entrepreneurs. Scholars have translated these patterns into terms that can be used by people who teach entrepreneurship and, more importantly, those who practice it.
In another field of study, Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner wrote a book titled “Five Minds for the Future”. The rationale for Gardner’s work is that: “One cannot even begin to develop an educational system unless one has in mind the knowledge and skills that one values, and the kinds of individuals one hopes will emerge at the end”. His book focuses on the five “mindsets” that he believes essential to general education: the disciplined mind, the synthesizing mind, the creative mind, the ethical mind, and the responsible mind.
While Gardner’s minds are debatable, his perspective that the way people think largely defines who they become is instructive. In light of his work, it seems natural to wonder whether it is possible to identify five specific “mindsets” that are important to entrepreneurial success. My own research has identified five such mindsets: the opportunity recognizing mind, the designing mind, the risk managing mind, the resilient mind, and the effectuating mind.
The opportunity recognizing mind is cultivated by identifying “pain points” in industry-specific value chains. Expert entrepreneurs rapidly go from spotting a pain point to analyzing the size of the market opportunity. Aspiring entrepreneurs, in contrast, are more likely to extrapolate from limited experience, and they tend to neglect analyzing the SIZE of the opportunity.
The designing mind has learned how to create repeatable production processes that consistently create valuable output for an identified market. In fact, one of the main differentiators between entrepreneurship and small business is the entrepreneur designs and develops of production processes that do not require his or her constant attention. Small business owners generally enjoy working in their business. Entrepreneurs prefer the design approach of working on their business.
Risk management is a too-often overlooked element of entrepreneurial expertise. A common belief is that entrepreneurs are risk takers. In reality, entrepreneurs have learned to be highly effective risk minimizers. Where others see intolerable risk, the expert entrepreneur has learned to reduce the risk to an acceptable level. For example, expert entrepreneurs operate according to the “principle of affordable loss” when launching a new venture. They don’t risk more than they can afford to lose.
The resilient mind is simply the ability to bounce back from the inevitable failures and setbacks that all entrepreneurs encounter. Expert entrepreneurs have learned to distinguish their business failures from personal failure. Without question they still experience disappointment and frustration, but they don’t turn their negative emotions inward. They view their business experiences objectively, and they strive to learn as much or more from their failures than they do from their successes.
Finally, the effectuating mind is simply the ability realistically to assess one’s talents, situation, and prospects. Any particular entrepreneurial opportunity could be pursued by anyone, but not everyone can pursue each opportunity. Some people simply will be better prepared to capitalize on an opportunity than others. This may be due to their life history, family circumstances, genetic gifts, or other factors. Expert entrepreneurs have learned honestly to assess their own unique talents and to leverage them in pursuit of opportunity. They do not care that others may be better suited to pursue other, potentially more lucrative, opportunities.
The five mindsets entrepreneurial expertise are targets for lifelong learning and development. No matter your current level of expertise in any of these mindsets it is likely that you have room for improvement. If you deliberately practice and develop skills in these specific mindsets over time, the chances for your entrepreneurial success inexorably will improve.