Xconomist of the Week: Len Schlesinger on Learning by Doing

Are successful entrepreneurs born with an innate sense that tells them which risky business bets will pay off? Or is this a skill that that can be learned over time?

To Babson College President and Xconomist Leonard “Len” Schlesinger, the answer to both questions is yes. There are occasional business prodigies like Steve Jobs who always seem to know what decisions are required to bring about fundamental change in the face of potentially crippling uncertainty. But the rest of us mere mortals can cultivate the same ability—all it takes is practice.

That’s the key message of Just Start, the book Schlesinger recently co-wrote with organizational-learning expert Charles Kiefer and journalist Paul Brown. The book is, in part, a manual for the proto-entrepreneur—the dreamer who has an idea that might change her career or her business, if only she can figure out how. But it’s also an introduction to the philosophy that’s been taking root at Babson ever since Schlesinger took the helm in 2008.

Though the Wellesley, MA-based school is consistently ranked as one of the top schools for undergraduates and MBA students who want to be entrepreneurs, Schlesinger and the faculty at Babson have been busy lately trying to figure out what entrepreneurship really is. And they’ve concluded that more than anything else, it’s a way of coordinating thinking and doing. (In fact, the first sentence of Babson’s mission statement now reads “Babson College will be known as the preeminent institution for Entrepreneurial Thought and Action.”)

Specifically, if you’re a would-be entrepreneur, Schlesinger and his co-authors advise you to engage in a methodical process of figuring out what youreally want; taking “smart steps” toward that desire (meaning, roughly, risking only as much as you can afford to lose); studying the outcome with a realistic eye; designing the next step based on what you’ve learned; and so on.

Their shorthand for this procedure is “creaction”—a portmanteau word combining creation and action. Schlesinger has had a taste of both, having spent 20 years teaching at Harvard Business School before joining Victoria’s Secret owner Limited Brands, where he rose to chief operating officer. Businesses like Limited Brands used to plan based on past experience, but Schlesinger and his colleagues argue that predictive reasoning doesn’t work anymore in a world defined by economic upheaval and rapid technological change. Better, these days, to be the architect of your own fate. “Creaction boils down to this,” they write. “The future may or may not be like the past, but you don’t have to spend a lot of time wondering how it will play out if you plan to shape (i.e., create) it.”

I connected with Schlesinger by phone last month and asked him how the book came about and what he hopes readers will learn from it. Here’s an edited summary of our conversation.

Xconomy: Why did you want to write this book?

Len Schlesinger: I have now been president of Babson for four years, and a large part of that process has been a strategic review of the institution. It became very clear that even here there was a very narrow view and definition of entrepreneurial activity and entrepreneurship—it was restricted to startup-related activity and ignored a lot of the other environments in which entrepreneurship is appropriate. I thought that from a marketing position, as well as an intellectual position, that was limiting the ability of the institution to stake out a point of differentiation and to have a bigger impact on the world.

X: So it sounds like you wanted to write a book that would cover all those other situations where entrepreneurial thinking is appropriate. But right in the introduction, you say that the book you ended up with isn’t the book you originally set out to write.

LS: When we sat down, we were going to write this cutesy book about how entrepreneurs think differently. And we discovered that the world didn’t need another one of those. Given everything that was going on around the campus, there was an opportunity to actually work from the experiences of entrepreneurs. So over the course of about 18 months of playing with a bunch of other folks, we tried to outline a concrete method and to take a more ambitious perspective than just the cutesy thing about thinking differently.

X: But cutesy or no, entrepreneurs really do think differently from other people, don’t they?

LS: Oh, there’s no question about it. The research is incontrovertible. Starting with the work of Saras Sarasvathy, there’s been a recognition that the thought and action patterns of successful serial entrepreneurs are almost antithetical to the logic of what I will call the large, corporate, prediction-oriented manager. And I believe the skills of being able to conceptualize and lead an entrepreneurial life are going to be increasingly critical in a world where the levels of uncertainty are as high as they are, and the levels of predictability in one’s career are as low as they are.

At some point, the only tool you have in your arsenal is to act. And there are smart ways to act, learnable from successful serial entrepreneurs, that anybody can use to increase their capacity to … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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