Everyone Should Learn the Entrepreneurial Method

When I was a teenager, the older women in my family taught me to cook. I learned it was traditional not to add salt when cooking lentils, because it would slow down the cooking. For some reason, perhaps the sheer pleasure of being difficult, I insisted on taking two identical pots and cooking identical quantities of lentils, one with salt and one without. That caused quite a bit of a stir, and not only because I proved that the salted lentils cooked just as fast. On the one hand, my mother, grandmother, and aunts sensed more difficulties were to come. On the other, they knew they’d participated in something different and important: a scientific experiment.

The women in my family were courageous, smart, and resourceful. They knew many things: useful wonderful things. For the most part, their knowledge was received knowledge, knowledge they’d been given, not figured out on their own. This is a common situation. The idea that anybody can be taught to figure things out, that there is a logic to discovery and invention, would have struck our ancestors as radical and strange. Until quite recently — until science education became institutionalized and widespread — the creation of new knowledge depended on either genius or luck.

I believe we are in a similar situation now with regard to entrepreneurship. When things go wrong in the economy, we wait for things to get better, hoping the government will take action or some large business corporation will come hiring in our town. Sometimes this learned helplessness manifests as a fatalistic belief in the genius of markets.

The idea that anyone can be taught to be an entrepreneur, to effect things for themselves, might seem ridiculous. But consider this. Every large corporation that exists today began as a small, entrepreneurial company started by ordinary people. In retrospect, their achievements seem incredible, almost magical, by no means ordinary or learnable by ordinary people. We do not think of entrepreneurial action as a skill, one as teachable in schools as scientific reasoning. I believe it is time to change this picture.

If we look back at the history of science education, we see that things began to change around the late 17th century. For convenience, we may take the trigger to be Francis Bacon’s “Novum Organum” in which he argued that there existed a “method” to understanding Nature. He also described the notion of “experimentation” that is the core of the scientific method as we understand it today. It took over 200 years to take this idea and transform it into nuggets of content that could be taught in a cumulative manner at various levels in the education system.

The philosophical controversies that surround the nature of the scientific method are important, but the fact is we now know that knowing is knowable. Science is an absolute essential of basic education. Millions of people work as scientists, helping to create the technological breakthroughs that we take for granted in our daily lives. As Richard Feynman pointed out, over 98% of all scientists in the history of humanity have lived in the 20th century and after.

I believe a similar revolution awaits us in the realm of entrepreneurship. I think we have the outline of a logic of entrepreneurial action in the set of ideas that have come to be called effectuation. Effectuation suggests you start with who you are, what you know, and whom you know to come up with very doable venture ideas. Then you invest no more than you can afford to lose and invite stakeholders to support the project in a way that ensures they are really committed. The goal is to co-create rather than predict the future. These are part of a broader complex of ideas that challenge conventional wisdom such as seeing the future as something outside our control, something to be predicted. Or seeing entrepreneurship as a lonely, heroic and risky activity. Or seeing success as the product of wealth. Of course, there’s a lot more to be figured out. But I think we now know enough to start teaching everyone.

Francis Bacon could not have known and probably did not even dream that his insight about a method accessible to everyone would lead to a world with iPads and Google and airplanes and defibrillators. And the women in my family, themselves unschooled in science, woke up every day to make sure their kids went to school and learned to figure out this world that changed on them in such profound and incomprehensible ways. They did not have much, but they were far from helpless. For me the most inspiring thing about the entrepreneurial method is that it is something they and folks like them everywhere can learn and use. And I know what they would use it for: to build a world in which all little girls and boys become capable of cooking up their own opportunities from scratch.

Saras Sarasvathy is Isadore Horween Research Associate Professor at University of Virginia’s Darden Business School. A leading scholar on the cognitive basis for high-performance entrepreneurship, Sarasvathy serves as advisor to entrepreneurship programs in Europe and Asia. This post first appeared at Harvard Business Review.

4 replies »

  1. I also really loved your post and the idea behind this. There are so many opportunities for personal advancement through entreprenuership for those that are willing to put in the time and effort–of course–but I think you pointed out another great point; it is about being able to go above and beyond what is expected and think out side of the box.

  2. Very interesting post and website. I will be studying the available materials in detail — though, I’m not paying $167 for Dr Sarasvathy’s book. That’s college textbook pricing.

    “The idea that anyone can be taught to be an entrepreneur, to effect things for themselves, might seem ridiculous.”

    Well, relatedly, it’s like that question “can you teach ‘creativity’?” (Many would say “no — that’s a contradiction in terms.”)

    I’m intrigued by some of these assertions. Though, one has to be careful of “publication bias” when “studying expert entrepreneurs” — i.e., the winners get to write the history (unless you have a good control sample of “inexpert entrepreneurs”). See Taleb’s “Fooled by Randomness / Extremistan” take on that problem.

    But, great stuff here. I signed up at effectuation.org and am reading the papers and articles.

    I wonder what Joe Flower’s take would be on this. Can we “co-create” the health care future we all want and need rather than just taking up adversarial empirical munitions via which to blast each other’s predictions?

  3. Wonderful post! I love the idea of the entrepreneurial method. It encourages creativity and ‘disruptive thinking’, challenging the over used ‘it’s how we have always done things’ statement.