Developing An Entrepreneurial Mindset

Many of my clients in Fortune 50 companies bemoan their inability to move fast. “We’re so rigid,” one of my clients, the president of a division of a major retailer, says. “Everything is process. Everything requires 12 signoffs. It’s not like the little startups you work with, Alisa.”

Actually, what I’ve learned from working with startups is that an “entrepreneurial mindset” can be cultivated. And, perhaps surprisingly, large companies have more capacity to actually act entrepreneurially than small companies. They have resources and people and structures in place to help support innovation—assuming that they don’t get sucked into the slow-moving pace.

Having an entrepreneurial mindset doesn’t mean you necessarily want to start a company yourself. It’s a shift in mindset that allows you to think differently and act differently even within your large corporation. Here are some attributes for you to cultivate to develop an entrepreneurial mindset for yourself and your team.

Bias Toward Action

The shift to an entrepreneurial mindset starts with a bias toward action. That simply means making it a habit to think about what small actions will make a new idea work, rather than studying it for a long time. Bias toward action helps drive step-by-step thinking rather than designing an ornate system that can get gummed up in the planning. Having a bias toward action helps you frame your question as, “What small step can we take to try this?” rather than, “What will go wrong?”

I coached the leader of a large government agency with over 5,000 people. As you can imagine, it was a bureaucratic environment, and my client Angela had spent 20 years within it, rising through the ranks.

Angela wanted our coaching to focus on developing her ability to drive more innovation in her agency. When I conducted 360-degree feedback for her, I found that her team experienced her as an innovation bottleneck—much to her surprise. The team said that when presented with a new idea Angela would say things like, “That will never get past legal” or “I don’t see how the employees will be able to learn something that quickly” and that would kill the new idea. Her years of experience in the agency were very helpful in getting things done, but she was so steeped in the culture that she couldn’t imagine how new ideas or processes would be embraced.

To her credit, Angela embraced this feedback and made key changes. She set up specific times and meetings for brainstorming and took seriously the golden rule of brainstorming to support all ideas. She banished her “that will never work here” speak. And when a new idea came up that looked like it had promise she challenged the team to come up with what she called a “lightweight pilot project” within 10 days. Within a year three pilots had been completed and embraced—to the astonishment of many in the department—and were on their way to more mass adoption.

Be a Rigorous Simplifier

Having a bias toward action demands that you be a rigorous simplifier. You have to identify the most important element in any new idea or system and focus on that. Otherwise you get mired in the natural complexity that makes up any large system.

Here are several questions you can ask to focus your employees’ attention on simplicity:

  • What’s the most important purpose of this process?
  • Who needs to know about this?
  • Is there an easier way to do this?
  • If we could only measure one element what would that be?

For example, the CEO of a large manufacturer I worked with was frustrated that it took so long to get forecasting information. “By the time we get the forecasting information it’s already mid-quarter,” he told me. “That’s far from predictive.”

After investigating this with his team, he found that multiple departments thought they had the responsibility to gather this information and that the teams were measuring a vast set of metrics, and regularly adding more. They had lost sight of what they actually needed.

It was a good opportunity to reset. The teams examined their entire process and asked, “If we could only measure one element, what would that be?” In the end they winnowed down the big set of data to five key metrics that they could then use to quickly provide a forecast. Along the way they simplified the approval process to include a much smaller set of people who had to sign off. Everyone felt liberated and energized to attack more systems to root out complexity and add simplicity.

Bring in Fresh Energy

An energized work force is a key driver of an entrepreneurial mindset. Entrepreneurial systems radiate energy while large corporate environments tend to rest in complacency. One way to create internal energy is to bring it in from the outside. For example, Microsoft brings in entrepreneurs-in-residence for a temporary period to provide an entrepreneurial perspective. Another large company I work with holds “ask the entrepreneur” brown bag lunches.

There are a lot of ways to bring in new perspectives and energy. Bring in people from different backgrounds and industries to mix with your team. Have them conduct question and answer sessions and tell their war stories. Perhaps you can find a way to bring them in for a half-day working session. Any method you use to infuse a fresh perspective will add energy to the system.

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