Acting Like Owners, Be Careful What You Wish For

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Starting tomorrow, my colleague Ashley Welch and I will be in New Orleans for Entrepreneur Week. New Orleans Entrepreneur Week (NOEW) culminates a season of entrepreneurship sponsored by The Idea Village, a non-profit organization established in 2000 whose mission, according to their website, is to “identify, support and retain entrepreneurial talent in New Orleans.” Ashley and I are bringing a group of our clients to NOEW to learn how Idea Village creates incubators of entrepreneurship in hopes of translating some of Idea Village’s culture, system and practices to organizational settings.

Innovation is a hot topic these days. Organizations have discovered that efficiency and productivity have their limits and mergers and acquisitions don’t reliably deliver on the promise of growth and synergy described in the consulting firm’s PowerPoint presentation. Growth will have to be earned the hard way, by actually creating a new customer or enhancing value for existing customers; something that entrepreneurs excel at.

Executives often bemoan the lack of entrepreneurial spirit in their organizations. Entrepreneurs act like owners, the theory goes; they take responsibility and seek opportunity. Entrepreneurs don’t wait to be told what to do. I’m looking forward to our client’s reactions this week after experiencing the entrepreneurial spirit at work in New Orleans. I can’t help wondering if we can find a happy marriage between entrepreneurship and corporate success.

For example, how do we encourage people to act like owners while subjecting them to organizational performance management systems? Real entrepreneurs are driven by passion and persistence, two stubbornly immeasurable traits. Even when it’s working perfectly, a performance management system predicated on achieving quantifiable objectives can limit managerial aspiration to what’s expected and doom managers to apply their energies to what someone else wants of them.

Entrepreneurs are passionate about winning, but they’re also passionate about playing the game. When managers care more about winning than about playing, they take short cuts, cheat, and only persist until they can blame someone or something else for coming up short. While we decry a general lack of accountability, we simultaneously create dependence by limiting the field of play and narrowing the definition of success. Over twenty years ago, Peter Block in The Empowered Manager, made a similar point by contrasting the “Bureaucratic Cycle” and the “Entrepreneurial Cycle.” Block (1987) wrote, “In many ways, organizations unintentionally encourage people to choose to maintain what they have, to be cautious and dependent.”

Of course, some innovative organizations are finding ways to support an individual’s pursuit of an idea for which they have passion and energy even if it doesn’t fall within their established roles and responsibilities. Google, for example, famously encourages employees to spend 20% of their time on ideas of their own creation. Perhaps we’re at the cusp of the organizational entrepreneur; the leader who understands how to thrive in a system of interdependencies without demanding that everyone’s passion take a back seat to a single organizational mission.

Read other posts by Jay G. Cone

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