by Gael O’Brien

In a Gallup poll released last week, 64 percent of Americans surveyed expressed a great deal/quite a lot of confidence in small business compared to 19 percent who felt the same about big business. This isn’t new information – small business has consistently inspired more trust than corporations.

In increasingly uncertain times globally, how serial entrepreneurs (those who are continually putting ideas in action) think and act offers models for navigating the unknown as well as handling potential ethical conflicts.

Emerging extreme weather patterns, erupting political unrest and global financial market volatility are some of the issues that are forcing business leaders to operate against the backdrop of the unknowable, where using the past to help predict the future is increasingly inadequate. This is far less of an issue for serial entrepreneurs.

Take for example an article in the latest Harvard Business Review offering adaptability as the new competitive advantage for big business in an era of risk and instability. It advocates experimentation, as a way around the current limits of forecasting, and embracing failure’s lessons.

These are concepts that are part of serial entrepreneurs’ DNA. The inevitability that these approaches may be seen as increasingly valuable within large companies – and how that will impact more traditional cultures – offers corporations, not already doing so, the opportunity to approach challenges differently.

The extensive research and writing about how serial entrepreneurs think and solve problems done by Saras Sarasvathy shifted focus away from the story of highly individualistic founders and the companies they created to common aspects of their thought process. This invites the question of whether the process that works for serial entrepreneurs can apply to the rest of us.

When Leonard Schlesinger became president of Babson College in 2008, he invited Sarasvathy, who teaches at the Darden School of Business, to campus to meet with him and faculty members as part of the ongoing conversations Babson began on what entrepreneurial thought and action can mean at the institution.

There have been many byproducts of this focus, including a book due out this fall by several faculty, The New Entrepreneurial Leader, which captures entrepreneurial thought as a method.

Another outcome is a book Schlesinger has been writing. His process actually mirrors entrepreneurial thought in action: in the face of the unknown, take a small step forward, pause to see what is learned, determine what you can afford/want to pay to play, bring others along, incorporate that learning into the next step, and build off the unexpected. The bottom line: Act, Learn and Build.

For example, Schlesinger and his co-authors Charles Keifer and Paul Brown tested their ideas, language, and listened to stories in a series of free two-day courses taken by 300 entrepreneurs. Armed with that information, the three men collaborated on a book that was written in seven weeks which they called, Action Trumps Everything: Creating What You Want in an Uncertain World. It was made available as a free PDF on the website and readers were encouraged to leave feedback.

In December 2010, they published a limited edition of the book for Babson alumni and friends, again encouraging feedback on the website. They have coined the expression CreAction — acting your way into the future you desire by taking small, smart steps. Expanding and revising the book, this year, they’ve added input from another 200 course participants. They will turn the manuscript over to Harvard Business Review Press next month and the book will be published in February under a new title.

In an interview with Schlesinger this month, I asked if there was anything different about how the first 300 men and women, who were course participants, responded to ideas or provided insights on how men and women entrepreneurs might lead differently.

He indicated it was a lot easier for the women to extend the ideas to all aspects of their life. Whereas the men were more focused on using the ideas either for their current venture or a transitional venture, wanting to know exactly how those ideas would help them.

“As we got into the conversations,” Schlesinger said, “women found much more in the way of natural linkages of action not only to their ventures, but to their friendships, relationships, to their families; and really enriched the conversation in meaningful ways that quite honestly got me to the point of thinking quite seriously about my presidency, about my own role, that what we are talking about is a way to live, not a way to work.”

I asked Schlesinger how ethics impacts entrepreneurial thought and action. While there are many answers, something that cuts across curriculum and life is a program, Giving Voice to Values,  he brought to Babson two years ago when he recruited Mary Gentile.  The curriculum is being taught in universities on six continents.

Embedded in Action Trumps Everything, and Giving Voice to Values, Schlesinger said, is the notion that practice makes better.  In addition to advancing what is going on in ethics education, he indicated, Gentile’s work builds a practiced-base methodology that goes alongside the discussion method; it increases the likelihood that when people confront a real situation, they will have had enough practiced-based scenarios that they’ve worked through from their own experience and reflected on that natural behavior comes more easily.

“I don’t think 25,000 more hours of teaching people the difference between right and wrong is going to make much progress,” Schlesinger said. “Most of these people actually do know at the core the difference between right or wrong and they know what to do with it. They know how to intellectualize what they would do with it. They just don’t know how to deal with it in real time in a real place. When confronted by a situation and no experience and no practice, they default to places where they have never been. That is where you find people cutting corners, taking short cuts, and doing stupid things.”

Referring to Malcolm Gladwell’s pronouncement in Outliers that greatness in any profession comes from 10,000 hours of practice, Schlesinger added, “there is a certain truth there and that truth is embedded in Mary’s program and its adaptability for use across different platforms.”

Serial entrepreneurs have a thought methodology that is available to any of us that can be used in the face of an increasingly unknowable future. The process of taking small steps to act, learn and build from essentially thwarts paralysis, being overwhelmed or being stopped by obstacles – three circumstances where good decisions are not likely to be made.

The key is that action provides evidence, and with the evidence of experience, as well as a practiced-based approach in curriculum and in how one approaches one’s life, there is greater clarity around self-knowledge, purpose, trade-offs, and one’s boundaries. With the clarity, greater transparency is possible, which can lead to a greater capacity to earn others’ trust.

Evidence allows the road ahead to seem more knowable.

Entrepreneurial thought and action — becoming a way to live, not just a way to work.

Gael OBrien_ID_CropGael O’Brien is a Business Ethics Magazine columnist. Gael is a thought leader on building leadership, trust, and reputation and writes The Week in Ethics.

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