By Steven D’Souza and Diana Renner
“Not Knowing is what makes being an entrepreneur more amazing than working a regular job with a regular pay check. We take risks, we fail, we don’t know what’s going to happen, we not only put our toes into the waters of the unknown…we dive in, headfirst”
On the list of risky things to do, tackling corruption in a new democracy would have to be high up there.
Chris Worman had been in Eastern Europe for six years when he decided to launch a grand challenge - a campaign to source and build mobile or web-based ideas to tackle complex, systemic issues in Romania like rule-of-law and anti-corruption. He was truly stepping into the unknown.
‘We’ve been working on this for 20 years and haven’t really come very far. Maybe we haven’t been asking the right questions.” Chris was surprised to hear a State Department official offering a ‘mea culpa’ to the relative lack of citizen engagement in Romanian anti-corruption initiatives. He couldn’t have agreed more. “As we began to sketch out what we planned to do about it, I could feel the crosshairs of some overzealous young politico drawing a bead on my organization and me”.
Chris knew enough about Eastern Europe to know that more than twenty years after the ‘fall of the wall’ democracy could sometimes be more nominal than real, and that those in power didn’t appreciate constructive criticism from the masses.
“Building and running this venture capital style process was nerve wracking. No one had tried a completely open online grant-making process like this in Romania. No one knew if Romanians would stand up and express very publicly, potentially putting themselves at some risk. We didn’t know if the traditional civil society actors would respond well any more than the regular citizen. And, as in venture capital we knew we were going to support a lot of ideas – most of which would fail.”
Chris and his team structured for potential failure by making sure they did their very best at what they knew they could control - the outreach and content campaigns. Even if they failed to take in many ideas, they knew they could reach and engage the online public in a debate about the issues at hand.
Over the coming months the campaign, ReStart Romania, reached more than 1.5 million people online and took in 150 ideas. Chris and his team built nine of which seven are currently in use by the public – mobile phone apps for reporting solicitations for bribes, mapping of illegal deforestation, tracking of public spending, amongst others. The process has been repeated seven more times across Central and Eastern Europe and the former Yugoslavia, reaching and engaging millions more in a dialogue about creating a more transparent democracy.
“Watching our small group of ‘ReStarters’ - young activists, more mature civil society leaders, journalists and one stay-at-home mom present their new tech tools for social engagement to a couple hundred corporate, diplomatic and civil society leaders was one of the high points of my life”, says Chris.
As an entrepreneur, Chris was able to ‘take the space in between’ (English translation of French ‘entre-prendre’). He stepped into the gap, in the space between the known, the familiar, and the unknown. By taking a risk and venturing into new territory (literally!), Chris was able to create a valuable new service, positively impacting millions of people, and bringing about systemic change across many countries in Europe. He did not set out with a plan of action, clearly defined goals or strategies. He did not know how things would turn out. In fact, being prepared for failure was key to his success.
In our new book ‘Not Knowing - The Art of Turning Uncertainty into Opportunity’ we reframe the concept of Not Knowing, usually associated with a fearful place of weakness and ignorance, to a place full of possibility and opportunity. What separates a successful entrepreneur from someone who merely starts a business is the preparedness to head, uncomfortably, towards the unknown, rather than away from it.
Whether you are wanting to start a business and don’t know where to start, or you are an entrepreneur looking to take the next step, here are four crucial capabilities that could support you on your journey.
1. Cultivate ‘Beginner’s mind’
Entrepreneurs are able to put aside what they know and make space for the new. They cultivate a ‘beginner’s mind’ (a concept drawn from Zen Buddhism) or an open mind, to avoid complacency, judgment, over-relying on knowledge and expertise, and to keep the mind alert to changing situations. It can also be an advantage. One senior manager we met at a WIRED tech conference who owns a chain of garden centres, had created a regular practice of attending a new conference, unrelated to his field, each year. This enabled him to draw parallels and lessons and see his own business afresh.
2. Close your eyes to see
Successful entrepreneurs create value by leaning into all their senses, not simply their minds. One-way entrepreneurs have done this, including Steve Jobs who spent time in an ashram, is to find spaces for silence and reflection. To close off the usual demands or channels competing for our time, and leave room for new data to emerge. To spend more time in curiosity and deep listening rather than a rush to the usual solution. It’s in this place of silence that novel solutions often present themselves. A recent trend has been for entrepreneurs to gather to decelerate rather than accelerate, like start up ‘decer8’ by Michel Bachmann who takes busy executives to Bali for reflection.
3. Leap into the dark
Entrepreneurs take action. Before they know the ‘how’ they have answered ‘yes!’. It’s not blind faith that compels them to leap into the unknown, but a belief in their ability to ‘improvise’ and ‘re-iterate’. entrepreneurs ‘feed-forward’ using failure as feedback to learn from and move forward. The focus is on constant re-iteration and improvement rather than insisting on perfection from the outset. The founders of UK company Innocent started their company by initially testing their smoothies at a festival. Rather than analyse the viability of their product to death, they asked their customers to vote if they should give up their jobs and start the smoothie business by throwing the empty bottles into buckets marked ‘yes’ or ‘no’. It took them nine months to come up with the company name, going through variations such as Fast Tractor, Hungry Aphid, Nude, and Naked before arriving at Innocent.
4. Delight In the unknown
Entrepreneurs make Not Knowing a way of life. They value boldness and humour as much as hard work, if not more. They cultivate a way to inhabit the gap between the known and the unknown with wonder, curiosity and joy. As Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron says,
“We can never know what will happen to us next. We can try to control the uncontrollable by looking for security and predictability, always hoping to be comfortable and safe. But the truth is that we can never avoid uncertainty. This Not Knowing is part of the adventure”.
Are you ready for the adventure?