The eternal sunshine of an entrepreneur’s mind

March 13, 2012

Evaluating investment opportunities is not for the weak at heart, not only because trend-spotting is tough and IP difficult to protect but also because of the sometimes mercurial nature of The Great Entrepreneur.  It’s not always so simple to plumb the depths of those original minds that see meaningful combinations where others do not and have abnormal levels of optimism.

Scott Anthony, writing at the Harvard Business Review Blog Network  gets at the nature of the thing – and coins a great phrase – when he advises not to confuse passion with competence:

When I’m evaluating entrepreneurs and their ideas, I look for “innovation bipolarity,” a version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first-rate intelligence: “the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Entrepreneurs should be able to argue passionately that their idea will change the world, and then, without skipping a beat, honestly assess the risks standing in the way of its success and describe what they are doing to mitigate them.

Of course, there are examples of dogmatism and fanaticism triumphing in the face of healthy skepticism. But that’s not a scalable approach to innovation.

Mr. Anthony’s “psychoanalytical” recommendation ties in nicely with the “genetic” markers identified by Dyer/Gregersen/Christensen in their double helix analogy from The Innovator’s DNA

Innovative entrepreneurs have something called creative intelligence, which enables discovery yet differs from other types of intelligence (as suggested by Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences).  It is more than the cognitive skill of being right-brained. Innovators engage both sides of the brain as they leverage the five discovery skills to create new ideas.  In thinking about how these skills work together, we’ve found it useful to apply the metaphor of DNA. Associating is like the backbone structure of DNA’s double helix; four patterns of action (questioning, observing, experimenting, and networking) wind around this backbone, helping to cultivate new insights.  And just as each person’s physical DNA is unique, each individual we studied had a unique innovator’s DNA for generating breakthrough business ideas.

In our experience, the entrepreneurs who make it from garage to funding to successful high-growth company display another type of bipolarity: the ability to reason causally and effectually.    Saras Sarasvathy, professor at the Darden School of Business, likens great entrepreneurs to Iron Chefs,  “at their best when presented with an assortment of motley ingredients and challenged to whip up whatever dish expediency and imagination suggest” (effectual reasoning), while successful corporate executives “set a goal and diligently seek the best ways to achieve it” (causal).

Different authors, different analogies, but on the same quest:  to capture the eternal sunshine of an entrepreneur’s mind.

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