The entrepreneurial process.

How corporates can replicate the best entrepreneurial traits

One of the marvellous things about working with very entrepreneurial people is how unpredictable they can be. No sooner have you worked out a business plan than three new ideas come across the table and all bets are off.

It can be a headache sometimes for those working around them, but it’s that restless energy that gives an entrepreneurial business its vibe and its drive. No wonder then, that once most entrepreneurs set out on their own ventures, they become virtually unemployable back in the corporate environment.

Which is a shame, because if there’s one thing that British businesses need right now, in times of deep uncertainty and potentially rapid change, it’s an entrepreneurial mindset: one that finds opportunities in the least expected places, one that takes risks while others take cover, one that zigs (as my friend Will King likes to say) when everyone else zags.

But as chaotic as the minds and lives of many of my entrepreneurial colleagues may appear, there is method in their apparent madness. There is a process at work, under the surface, that even the most corporate of businesses can learn from and copy. It is a process of ideas, of options and of commonalities.

Ideas are the basic source of energy for most entrepreneurs, and from what I’ve seen, they get them by listening and observing better than everyone else. They listen to what others are doing – most of the entrepreneurs I know are incredibly well networked, not for business reasons, but because they enjoy listening to the ideas, travails and tangents that other people take them on. And they observe the behaviours and frustrations – their own, and of those around them, not because they like to complain, but because each one is a potential product or service opportunity. For most, it’s an entirely unconscious habit, but for the interested observer, it’s an entirely learnable process.

Options, and in particular, keeping their options open while adding more, is the hallmark of the entrepreneurial mindset. This is the root of frustration for many of their teams who desperately want them to make a decision and commit to one deliverable course of action, and it’s the main reason that not all entrepreneurs are successful. Often, the desire to pursue too many options is their Achilles heel, they stretch themselves too thin; they lose focus, direction and momentum.

But the best entrepreneurs have a solution: they work on the commonalities. These are the options from which most others could be developed, or the building blocks upon which a variety of options could equally be built: a retail site, a brand presence, a customer database, a passionate team and some willing, trusting, potential customers. Whatever those building blocks are, they are a way to make rapid progress, a platform upon which to test ideas, while keeping the product options open.

This is a fundamental difference between the entrepreneurial and the corporate approach. In most mature businesses, the prevailing culture is one of “think, plan, act”. It’s a culture that expects the end point to be defined, the plan to be constructed and detailed before the work begins. It begets management processes that require the destination be decided before the first steps are taken.

The entrepreneurial approach, in contrast, requires only that the ideas are attractive, the options manifold and the first, common steps towards them all, can be delivered. The thing about this approach is that it’s perfectly possible for corporates to adopt it; to become more entrepreneurial, more agile, and dramatically more responsive almost overnight.

All it needs is a change in process; one that comes from a shift in mindset. But in a future as unpredictable as Britain’s exit from the EU, that shift could make all the difference.