New Business Books

Just Start!


You’re smart. Creative. And terrific at solving challenges. So why does it seem that the number of things you can’t figure out is increasing?

The problem may not be you. It could be the way you were taught to think.

From kindergarten on, we’ve learned Prediction Reasoning—a way of thinking based on the assumption that the future will be pretty much like the past.

Demographics are one simple example of how Prediction Reasoning (from now on, let’s just call it Prediction) works. You can calculate with a high degree of confidence what the world population will be in 2050 because you already know a lot of things: how many people are alive today (about 6.8 billion); distribution by age; the number of people in their 20s and 30s, the age when most people decide to have children; and recent trends in population growth—it’s slowing as people decide to have fewer kids.

Studying all this data—and much, much more—you can, as the United Nations did recently, say with a reasonable amount of certainty that by the year 2050 there will be about 8.9 billion people on the planet. Armed with that data you can also make a number of fairly accurate estimates of such things as how many diapers will need to be produced, how many gallons of water those 8.9 billion people will drink each day, and how much the U.S. will need to pay out in Social Security benefits when we reach the midpoint of this century.

Because it works so well in these kinds of situations—and countless others you can think of—we (like you) became accustomed to using Prediction all the time.

And yet …

Not everything can be foreseen (and thus predicted). Want to know if the cute guy across the hall is going to ask you out? Sorry, Prediction can’t help. Is the world ready for your brand-new product or service? Prediction does you no good.

When the future is unknowable, the way we traditionally reason isn’t much help. We need a new approach for navigating in an uncertain world. Well, we found one. And we know it works because it’s based on how the people who best deal with uncertainty—successful entrepreneurs—think.

Those who write about entrepreneurs invariably focus on their behavior: what Howard Schultz or Michael Dell did while building their respective companies. If you take that approach, you probably would conclude that every entrepreneur is unique, so there’s little to be learned from studying them.

Enter our friend Saras Sarasvathy, author of Effectuation: Elements of Entrepreneurial Expertise. Saras made a fascinating discovery, one that ran counter to conventional wisdom. She studied serial entrepreneurs, but instead of looking at their behavior—which is indeed unique—she focused on how they think. There she found amazing similarities in how they reasoned, approached obstacles, and took advantage of opportunities.

We built off of this, finding that when entrepreneurs create something new, they almost always follow these steps:

1. They want to do what they set out to do. It doesn’t have to be passion at the outset. That will build over time. But an honest desire is important—something more emotional than, “It seems like a good idea.”

2. They quickly take a small step toward their goal, using any means available. You don’t want to overcommit or move so far you can’t recover.

3. After taking that small step, they stop to see what they have learned. Maybe they learn their initial goal is still a good one. Maybe the market tells them to go in another direction. The point is, they pause and reflect.

4. Once they understand what they’ve learned, they take another small step and go through the cycle again. In other words, the formula for success (if there is one) is figuring out what you truly want to do. And once you know: Act. Learn. Build. Repeat. This process continues until you are either happy with the result or decide you don’t want to (or can’t afford to) continue.

How does this work in practice?

• Find something you want. (“I really want to start a restaurant, but I haven’t a clue if I will ever be able to open one.”)

• Take stock of the resources you have at hand and use them to take a small step toward your goal. (“I know a great chef, and if all my family and friends back me, I might have enough money to open a place.”)

• Using those resources, take a smart step toward achieving your goal, i.e., bringing your current reality closer to what you want. (“Let me see what the rents are like at potential locations.”)

• Pause to reflect on what you have learned from taking that step. Every time you act, reality changes. Sometimes the step you take gets you nearer to what you want. (“I should be able to afford something just outside of downtown.”) Sometimes what you want changes. (“It looks likes there are an awful lot of Italian restaurants nearby. We’re going to have to rethink our menu.”) You always learn something. So after you act, ask: Did those actions get you closer to your goal? (“Yes. It looks like I’ll be able to open a restaurant.”) Do you need additional resources to draw even closer? (“Yes. I’ll need to find another chef. The one I know only does Italian.”) Do you still want to pursue your dream? (“Yes.”)

• Repeat until you have what you want (or you’ve decided you don’t want it and/or want something else instead).

We’ve dubbed this new way of thinking “CreAction,” a combination of create and action. It complements Prediction—it does not replace it. The key thing about CreAction is that it’s based on acting and creating evidence, as opposed to thinking and analysis.

In other words, when facing the unknown, act your way into the future you desire. Don’t think your way into it. You can think all day about starting that restaurant, but thinking alone won’t get you any closer to having one.

Sometimes when we explain this concept, people say it sounds familiar. It should. It was the way we all learned—at first.

As a child, everything was unknown or uncertain, so you started learning through action. You’d make a sound and something happened (your mother responded). You pulled the cat’s tail (and got scratched). What we advocate is the recovery of a skill we all had at a young age: the ability to act your way into better thinking.

One last thought. We know this approach works because we used it ourselves. While self-publishing a book-length version of Just Start about a year ago, we …

• Acted. (We wrote it and got it on Amazon.com for $14.95 a copy.)

• Learned. (Yes, it was a commercial idea. We sold about 9,000 copies, a pretty good number. And yes, we could do better. People told us they wanted more stories, more examples, and for us to break things into digestible bites so our argument would be easier to follow.) Then we …

• Built off of what we learned. (We made all the changes the readers wanted and sold the book to a “real” publisher, Harvard Business Review Press.)

If we can implement this model, so can you.

Leonard A. Schlesinger, a long-time professor at Harvard Business School, is president of Babson College. Charles F. Kiefer is president of Innovation Associates, which helped pioneer the body of concepts and methods now called organizational learning. A long-time contributor to The New York Times, Paul B. Brown is a former writer and editor for Businessweek, Financial World, Forbes, and Inc. Together they are the authors of Just Start: Take Action, Embrace Uncertainty, Create the Future, published recently by Harvard Business Review Press.


Steve Ballmer, Power Forward
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