Entrepreneurs are full of vigour and are driven to solve problems in novel ways. They often ask the ‘how’ question and drive down the barriers to innovation, sometimes disruptively and dramatically.
Yet, without asking the ‘why’ question our innovations may be short-lived, ultimately unsustainable and of limited value to society or ourselves. Successful entrepreneurs marry the 3Ps : passion, purpose (in terms of some kind of societal good) which addresses the why question and, in so doing, achieve a profit for their enterprise, which deals with the how.
Do age differences exist in the drive to seek solutions, by relentlessly asking the 'how' question and the need to seek purpose for our innovations by relentlessly asking the 'why' question?. I argue that the best entrepreneurs ask both questions independent of age, if your enterprise is to have sustainable foundations for good. In this piece I draw on interviews and encounters I’ve conducted with elders as diverse as Professor Charles Handy and Richard Branson, plus younger players at Innocent Drinks.
Young at heart
What characterises the older entrepreneurs and thought leaders that I have met over the ages is their singular ability to think and act as if they are young at heart. Irish management philosopher Professor Charles Handy and eminent English Psychologist Professor Adrian Furnham are shining examples of people who believe in the value of youthful passion and ingenuity as an engine of social progress. Handy goes as far to suggest that business leaders should invite their children to comment on their business. I recall he pointed out that children are often better than coaches, in so far as that they offer you the unvarnished truth. Of course it is then up to the individual entrepreneur to adapt this naïve advice into the wider context of their business strategy. Adrian Furnham believes that youth injects a valuable spark into any business and advises business leaders around the world to stay young in a world where the half-life of businesses is in freefall by hiring young talent.
Richard Branson also shared his views with me about whether entrepreneurs are born or made in the book Leading Innovation, Creativity and Enterprise, stating that the skills required can be learned by people, young or old, providing that they are open and receptive to learn.
"While I do think that some people have the natural ability to turn their hand to running a business, I still think it can be taught. Entrepreneurship isn’t reserved for a certain group of people - we are all born entrepreneurs, some people just forget as they grow up," he explains.
"The same can be said for creativity. We’ve all sat in meetings where the ideas have run dry and nobody can find a creative solution to the problem. But we’ve also all probably been in meetings where the ideas are flowing and something amazing has been born. The people in the room, the techniques being used to generate ideas, the mindset of the person leading the project - these are all important factors."
Older and wiser
Experience and naivety are bedfellows. Naivety helps us do new things. Experience helps us do them better. In my own case I note that I’m repeatedly challenged by my children, who ask the question why so well. Untrammelled by the grown-up custom of staying silent when questions must be asked, all children start their lives as questions and, if we bring them up well, they do not end up as full stops. We learn continuously as children so why would we not have them ask us challenging questions as adults in our businesses?
To ask why repeatedly is to act on purpose. Innocent Drinks ask the question a lot and their enterprise thrives on a healthy blend of young and older talent, blending care for mother nature with making healthy drinks. Innocent is the embodiment of the 3 Ps - passion, purpose and profit. Their mission is to "make natural delicious food and drink that helps people live well and die old" - compellingly simple and worthwhile.
It is even harder to remain on purpose when your enterprise grows. I asked Richard Branson how he keeps "The Virgin way" alive in some 400 or so companies and he suggested that it comes down to careful selection and keeping each enterprise small enough to be agile and nimble. Tim Smit, CEO of the Eden Project agrees with Richard. Tim suggests that enterprises ossify when they get to a certain size. It is even more important to inject people who can keep the enterprise on purpose and find new ways to achieve their dreams as your company grows.
"When we started Virgin we were keen to do things differently. We wanted to go into industries and disrupt them, fight for the consumer and offer an alternative to the status quo. We did this in the music industry, the airline industry and countless others. We always thought it was best to ask for forgiveness rather than permission and made some daring decisions. The problem is, the bigger you get the more there is to lose," notes the Virgin Group founder.
"When you’re operating in the banking sector, as we are with Virgin Money, you don’t want to be making risky decisions with people’s money. However while you may have to respect industry rules and regulations, you should feel free to challenge things that you feel aren’t right. It’s about protecting the downside and taking calculated risks."
Why oh why?
To be great at establishing and maintaining purpose in your enterprise, try these three simple techniques to find your why:
- Why3 - The repetitive habit of asking the question why followed by "in order to" will help you establish your enterprise’s true purpose.
- Superheroes - Put yourself in the mind of your favourite business leaders and ask yourself what would they be seeking from your enterprise. The act of detachment from self is a powerful way to find purpose.
- Child’s play - Ask a child what they think you do for a living. Listen carefully to what they say.
Asking why helps you find purpose in your business. Asking how helps you stay in business long enough to realise profit from your purpose. Make both a habit.