This is from a recent talk I gave at D1.Solutions, an exciting startup who strives to be Number One with data in the world of Business Intelligence. I spent some time with this company, as I am friends with two of the founders from years past. This talk was about the mental challenges of doing something new, about moving boundaries.
One of the most important elements I am taking from the exciting story that D1.Solutions is currently writing, is its willingness to move back boundaries. D1 wants to open new spaces and opportunities for its customers and valued employees, which will have major impacts once they are turned into reality.
Before I share a few thoughts about this topic, let me tell you a little bit what contexts in which these ideas originate. Basically, I am a person that gets excited about innovation and discovery and has been searching my entire career to find the best way to apply my skills and knowledge to move back boundaries. These are boundaries of knowledge in some respect; boundaries that separate what we know from ignorance. In March, a spacecraft, which carries an instrument my team built, is going into orbit around Mercury. This will result in the first measurements of Mercury’s exosphere enabled by an instrument which beat mass and power consumption numbers of its competitors by a factor of 3 or 5. This is not because of magic or some new miracle technology, but it is because of a team that believed, a team that performed and a team that collaborated. Clearly, technology breakthroughs were important. Based on lessons from this instrument and need-cases defined there, we have already won almost two million dollars of new technology funds, have filed a patent, and we have won the next, more advanced space instrument from NASA.
When I worked on this space instrument and on some of my classes, I noticed that there are people who are better only as scientists. I do not often meet people who are better at the combination of science, innovation and leadership that it takes to lead such teams. This is why I volunteered to take on a tough challenge at the University of Michigan. You may not be aware of this: The University of Michigan, and especially its College of Engineering, is one of the top-programs in the US and worldwide, and each of its departments – with one exception – is ranked in the top-10 in the US. I love working there because of the high expectations on people. Well, U-M is a public school and has led people in many ways: In the eighties, it used to lead people by per-capita income. It was the Silicon Valley of the early 20th century, the location of the first highway, the place that put the world on wheels. However, it is a place that demonstrates the downsides of too much success. We are now leading in unemployment, population decrease and in utter ineffectiveness of our economy. The task I was taking on was in reaction to this from within our school: how do we empower our people to change the world around them? How do we move their mental boundary so that they know that it is up to them to become the next Thomas Edison, the next Henry Ford and the next Herbert Henry Dow? Moving boundaries is tough – if I did not know that, I learned it at U-M. But, the success has become one of the most amazing stories of this university in the past 2-3 years: 2500 students per year are in entrepreneurial classes, over 4000 are actively involved through idea competitions and we have over a hundred teams and companies with which we are working and mentoring.
So, my statements here are about moving boundaries, and lessons others and I have learned in trying to do so. I already told you what my conclusion will be: we will move boundaries if we believe in success, focus on performance, and do so as a team. These are values that are directly or indirectly part of the values of D1. They are not some weird dream or idealization. They are the tools that need to be used to create success.
Before we think about these values, I want to address in what context entrepreneurship is most likely to work. Peter Drucker once said, “The entrepreneur always searches for change, responds to it, and exploits it as an opportunity.” So, entrepreneurship is much more like orienteering than it is like a 100-meter dash. Roy Ash, another famous entrepreneur once said to the same topic: “An entrepreneur tends to bite off a little bit more than he can chew hoping that he’ll quickly learn how to chew it”. But, what is the focus on entrepreneurship? It is not the technology in isolation, it is the customer – says Edison, “I never perfected an invention that I did not think about in terms of service it might give others… I find out what the world needs, then proceed to invent.”
We now focus on the three pieces that, in my experience, are important when we try to move boundaries. The first one is to take on this entrepreneurial mindset, the forward look and believing in success (Ma et al.).
“Entrepreneurship is a particular type of mindset, a unique way of looking at the world….At the heart of entrepreneurship lies the desire to achieve, the passion to create, the yearning for freedom, the drive for independence, and the embodiment of entrepreneurial visions and dreams through tireless hard work, calculated risk-taking, continuous innovation, and undying perseverance.”
People who think of successes from the point of view of start and stop time of the work should be in places where this type of thinking is valued. There are many: pilots, security personnel, manufacturing environments of big companies. That is not to say that these types of environments can never be entrepreneurial, but they tend to value people who can perform reliably, without error and without risk.
It is useful to check that mindset in us every once in a while and to root out thinking that opposes it. This does not mean that we do not address negatives. In fact, the opposite is the case: Entrepreneurs want to know about failure ASAP, so they can learn and turn it around. As they make twists and turns, their eyes remain locked on the goal.
The way they know how they are moving, through a bunch of techniques, is to keep creating successes. It is not about hitting holes-in-one – they do happen to the well trained! But, it is about improving the game. I love environments that visualize success for everybody to see. I have used white boards for that, communications like the one I got of D1 yesterday. Many things do not matter, but a company like D1 needs customers who swear by them. They are surprised; they are amazed that their expectations are surpassed. That happens not because of some trick or miracle, but because entrepreneurs keep moving.
There is one thing nobody wants to talk about, but which is the key element of creating success. In entrepreneurial environments, success is often much closer to failure than in many other places. We do not want to die by analysis, but learn by trying, learn by failing and keep moving the ball. Often, one needs to make decisions without knowing and one has to learn to live with the consequences of these decisions. That is one of the key reasons entrepreneurs do not grow on trees: Risk is an important part. Entrepreneurs know that failure is also not always bad, if we react fast enough.
In addition, in times of failure, I always think of a statement Richard Branson once made: “Business opportunities are like buses, there’s always another one coming.”
There is a final piece I want to talk about, and that is the team. I have run many teams and have failed more often than many. But, I have found this to be the most important part in my successes in pushing boundaries. Despite the fact that we want the best and brightest, that does not guarantee success. We want to create a culture in which people can grow and which allows people to find their own personal success.
I cannot say it better than two current entrepreneurial leaders. One is reflective, and the other is a general statement.
Bill Gates, who is so often celebrated as a successful individual says, “Our success has really been based on partnerships from the very beginning.” Not only is Gates pointing to internal partnerships, Gates is also talking about business partners, his first customers and others who helped to create success.
However, I think nobody gave a better reason to work with teams than Larry Page did: “Solve small problems and you will solve them alone. Solve big problems and people will be happy to help.” Teams do not just allow us to do a better job with problems we could otherwise solve alone, although slower and worse. Teams enable the solution of new kinds of problems nobody can solve by himself or herself. I very much believe in that basic wisdom. It is worth it to think big, and to think big as a team.
In summary, besides all the amazing technology you will be focusing on, I want to tell you that I think your success in the future will be related to how well you do with three things:
- Your success-oriented mindset
- Your focus on performance and what this means for you
- And your ability as a team to define and solve problems.