It’s easy enough to make a list of what qualities an entrepreneur should have. A good leader, motivator, communicator, they should persevere… These are all the sorts of things you expect a good manager or leader to have, but that doesn’t differentiate an entrepreneur.
An entrepreneur also should be able to learn from others, have self-confidence, have self-motivation and determination, show initiative, be able to analyse situations, be decisive, take considered risks, have a focus on results, and be innovative and inventive.
But none of these are really superpowers – it’s just another list that someone has all or most of – enough to be labelled an entrepreneur. That doesn’t necessarily make them successful.
I think I can do those things. I also don’t think that I’m very good at original thought. But I do think that I’m good at making connections between unconnected ideas, and perhaps in that lies a suggestion of a superpower.
I think a really good entrepreneur cultivates serendipity. The word comes from the 1800s where Horace Walpole wrote about a Persian fairy tale about three princes from the Isle of Serendip, who possess super powers of observation, and from this he proposed a new word, serendipity, which describes a skill rather than a random piece of good fortune.
From my observations of many business people over many years, I think some people cultivate this and develop it as a skill, albeit unconsciously. I think some people are very good at making connections indeed. It’s surprising how many big ideas emerge from failed experiments, blind guesses, crashes and accidents. There was a survey of patent holders published in 2005 that found that 50% of European inventors created patents that resulted from some sort of serendipity – they responded that their idea evolved when they were working on something unrelated, and often when they weren’t trying to invent anything at all.
Apart from the number of good connectors I have found, I have found many more who stumble over something, pick themselves up without a backward glance and hurry on. Or, they say “Why doesn’t somebody…” Well, why don’t you?
So it’s a question of observation, curiosity, and perhaps exasperation. As I feel I live in a permanent state of exasperation, perhaps that’s the bit I’ve got. Exasperated people change things.
Some people see their world through a tight focus, so they stick to what they have to do that day. It’s a common issue, and this narrower and narrower focus has been a desirable outcome for better business performance, apparently. I have grave doubts that this is effective, as it tends to lead to at best efficiency improvements (generally cost-cutting, which you can only do really once), which means that you tend to spend more and more time chasing less and less marginal result.
Other people stumble upon a chance encounter and make a connection now and then. They may have the gift, but they don’t practice it, so it doesn’t get stronger. Then there are people who this seems to happen to regularly and who report that these happy surprises pop up all the time. They spend time looking in odd places for even odder things and seem to come up with little treasures more often than not. They have the superpower.
How can you develop this superpower of serendipity? I’ve talked about this in a seminar I’ve done called How to Innovate, as it’s an innovation power as well. There are videos on the website on that.
Have an eclectic range of interests, wonder why, ask lots of questions and don’t be fobbed off with simple answers. It’s astonishing what connections you can make.
I once discovered a fraud by relating fish in a fish farm to how a petrol forecourt worked. The fish farm manager was siphoning fish off (literally) and selling them on the side. You can control the flow of fish in exactly the same way as you can the flow of petrol from underground tank into your car. He left the day after I described what system I was going to put in.
How did I manage this? I’m fortunate in that I have clients who come from many different technical and life positions, and I get to see what they do and why they do it in detail. So I have a database of potential connections, if you like. Because of this, I think it’s essential that your advisers shouldn’t be too specialised because this will be lost to them. I’m all for generalists.
Over time, business people develop generalist characteristics out of necessity. They may start with a technical discipline, but they will learn a little bit about finance, and employing people, sales and marketing and so on because they have to. They may not know what they should know and they may not know exactly how each part relates to the other. They may have lots of pieces of jigsaw some of which they can join up, but they don’t have the box with a picture on it. That’s our job – to show them the whole picture, how the parts relate, and help them fill in the essential missing bits. But you can help yourself, and we can help you with that too.
You can easily enough develop a way of questioning everything you see and not being put off by simple answers. Partly, it means you invest a little time and not rush from one thing to the next. Just take a few seconds to really look and experience what it is that is in front of you, what it might mean and how it is used.
Adopt a new habit of being interested in something new. Try using Pocket to catch interesting things on the Internet. Pocket also gives you a weekly email digest of interesting stuff it’s found. It’s not based on your interests – it’s based on things that are interesting. It’s the opposite of the big data that Amazon and others use, that constantly shows you things related to your searches. That’s the focus issue again. Be wary of that – it concentrates when it should expand your vision. You are not the hunter using your binocular vision here, you are the gatherer, using peripheral vision. You might use that idea and Pocket as a starter for new explorations. Your life will be a little fuller, but you can discard things that have become less interesting. So time will catch up.
This will all help you to be more creative, make more connections and think of even more questions to ask. And you’ll be strengthening your superpower of serendipity every time.