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 manage their lives in an uncertain environment. You actually had this skill when you were younger, and you unlearned it when you went through an education process that is entirely rooted in prediction and logic. Now we are helping you to rediscover it.

X: In the book you call this skill creaction. What’s your thumbnail definition of creaction?

LS: The simple logic that underlies creaction is act, learn, build, repeat. Act, reflect on what has happened, learn form it, build the next action, and repeat. We believe that’s the underlying logic associated with smart action. Prediction worked marvelously in a world where the future could be extrapolated logically from the past. We’re saying that you can’t do that anymore. Scott Cook, the founder of Intuit, put it very clearly and in some ways we can’t say it any more elegantly: in an era of extreme uncertainty, action is the only way to create the evidence that is needed for the scientific method to work.

X: Do you think that most educational institutions are still built around prediction?

LS: I often talk about this marvelous article written up in the Journal of Cell Biology, of all places, a couple of years ago where they talked about engineering “productive stupidity.” In essence, the article was about the difference between how science is done and how it’s written up. It makes the argument that our education system today is entirely focused on celebrating and rewarding people who raise their hands to tell us things that we already know. What we are trying to do is build a system where people raise their hand, acknowledge their ignorance, combine their ignorance with curiosity, and go out and make significant discoveries. If people wrote science the way it is actually done, it would look much more like that. We have the same problem in the writing of science as we do in the writing of entrepreneurship. After their first big success, an entrepreneur usually hires a ghostwriter who goes and rewrites their life to make it sound like the success was inevitable.

X: Yes—we know that most companies go through major pivots as they figure out how to serve their customers. But when I ask startup founders to tell me how their idea changed along the way, a surprising number of them claim they never changed course, that they’re doing exactly what they set out to do.

LS: It’s called lying. I will tell you a story I told my students recently. I had the opportunity a couple of years ago to meet with a group of CEOs in the career planning space, and they wanted me to talk about my own career over the last 35 years, because I had done so many different kinds of things. It was going to be in front of an august audience, and I wanted to do a very good presentation. So I rewrote my life. It wasn’t intentional, it just happened that way. They loved my life the way I presented it, so I walked out of there smiling. Only an hour later did I say to myself, “That was all bullshit.” I had retrospectively constructed a logic to make it look like everything I did was intentional. I eliminated the process of serendipity, the mystery, the discovery. If entrepreneurs consistently told stories as they actually experienced them, there is no question in my mind it would lead to less hero worship.

X: How do you hope people will use the book?

LS: Quite honestly, I don’t care if people read three chapters or 10 pages. I just want them to get to the point in the book where they are saying “That’s an interesting idea, let me put it into practice.” There are people like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg who do extraordinary things out of the box, but most of us are mere mortals, and the only way we are going to get good at what we do is by practicing. David Galenson wrote a great book called Old Masters and Young Geniuses where he studied the auction market for artists. There are Andy Warhols who hit it out of the park the first time, but the value of their work does not evolve after the market gets bored with it. On the other hand, there are people like Monet whose early work is not particularly distinguished, but if you follow his whole career you begin to see how the craft, the eye, the skill, the capability evolved. People need to understand that for the vast majority of us who are mere mortals, the only way to get good at this stuff is to actually build and learn.

X: In light of all this emphasis on learning by doing, what place is there for formal, academic business training at institutions like Babson?

LS: The good news is that we are completely aligned with the proposition that the most powerful way to deepen entrepreneurial capabilities is to practice. One of the essential skills of an entrepreneur is the capacity to “de-risk” your behavior, and there is no better place to de-risk than at an undergraduate or graduate educational institution like Babson. Alongside a curriculum focused on content, which is critical for the part of the world that is predictive and logical, you build up a complementary skill in smart action. You become bilingual across predictive and creactive logic.

X: But are the ideas in the book finding their way into the actual curriculum at Babson?

LS: As at any great institution, the curriculum is entirely within the domain of the faculty. If you read the book The New Entrepreneurial Leader, developed by Babson faculty members, you will see a different language system, but enormous similarities in the basic construction that they use. That work is set into the architecture of the curriculum.

There is very little doubt in my mind that students will have, through their undergraduate or graduate experience, a deep understanding not only of all the content-related stuff that historically defines business school, but also hours and hours of practice of putting ideas to work. And they will have had plenty of feedback and learning in this environment. As we say at the end of the book, practice doesn’t guarantee success, but it dramatically increases the likelihood that people will get what they wanted out of their careers.

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

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