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Entrepreneurs ought to act like revolutionaries

In my last article, I started writing about the lessons from David McCourt’s book Total Rethink – Why Entrepreneurs Should Act Like Revolutionaries. There I focused on what he saw as the personal attributes of successful entrepreneurs, and in this one, I will be reporting on McCourt’s experience regarding the business side of entrepreneurship.

McCourt, himself a highly successful serial entrepreneur in the field of telecommunications – a self-professed “revolutionary” in that domain – tells us that while in business and in life generally, everything is changing so fast, with the problems we need to solve entirely different from how they used to be, the ways we think and how we make decisions have changed little since the times of agricultural and industrial societies.

The traditional wisdom, he observes, has been that improvements are best introduced incrementally, with large established corporations planning to increase their turnovers and profits incrementally, and governments changing their laws incrementally. However everything is moving too fast for that to be an effective solution any longer, and we must all revolutionise the way we think and the way we behave in order to be more entrepreneurial.

In an article he published in The Irish Times around the time his book appeared in 2019, McCourt relished the thought that because revolutionaries threaten the status quo – and for many their comfortable way of life – they are often very unpopular. But he strongly believes that upheaval is essential if we are to cope with the challenges the rest of this century is bound to throw at us as the alternative could well be even worse.

Technology is progressing so fast that many are getting left behind, forced to “stand back and watch as the future shoots by”. So if we are to succeed we must “take a risk and ruffle the surface”

Today’s technology goes beyond previous linear approaches, he observes, with algorithms sorting through billions of pieces of data to find patterns and connections unrecognisable to humans. It is also cutting out the middle man, as crowdsourcing is taking the place of bank managers; Airbnb, Expedia and Booking.com replacing the travel agent; and Amazon having thrown the world of retail into upheaval.

The combination of technology, social media and the way people now absorb information – particularly the younger generations – means that the top-down centralised way we have been running the world for the last couple of centuries is no longer a viable model to follow, he warns, adding that the enormous opportunities available could easily slip through our fingers “due to the greed and conservatism of the establishments that dominate the economy”. Ouch.

In the book, he also complains about how too many corporates stifle inconvenient smaller competitors, and about the short-term thinking of too many companies. To make matters worse we suffer from the over-regulation of the business environment by government, seriously inhibiting innovation and entrepreneurship.

(Including and not least here in Kenya – with the notable exception of how the Central Bank allowed the introduction of the disruptive Mpesa system… plus now watch out for swift moves by the Capital Markets Authority.)

McCourt is not just focused on beating his competitors or maximising his wealth. He is equally concerned about the many who are left behind, and here he is looking way beyond revolutionary business entrepreneurs for solutions.

“A revolutionary entrepreneur,” he states in his article, “is anyone who wants to make a difference in the world. After all, change isn’t confined to business. Today’s healthcare is being transformed by advances such as 3D printing, remote diagnoses and electronic health trackers, education is being rebuilt by e-learning and video classrooms.”

McCourt is aware that lots of changes are needed beyond those brought about by technology. “There are so many structures in our lives that need reinventing – and I mean total rebuilding: the political system, diplomacy, taxation, wealth distribution, the refugee crisis, to name but a few,” he challenges.

“I became an entrepreneur for the joy of doing things differently, to rethink the model and to change things in ways that would eventually bring benefits to everyone,” his article concludes.

I’m sure that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos would applaud that, as his recently launched Courage and Civility Award indicate.

The question I leave you with is whether you are simply an incrementalist… or whether there’s something of the revolutionary in you.

How to lead people in embracing change

Even as many organisations continue asking for help with teambuilding, more recently change management has also gone mainstream. While the massive Covid disruption has brought change yet further front and centre, even before the pandemic spread around the world, the 21st century VUCA phenomenon of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity had confirmed constant change as the new normal.

Let us also acknowledge though that this century is certainly not when change first confronted humanity. It was back in 500 BC when the Greek philosopher Heraclitus pointed out that “change is the only constant” – and so it has been, both before and since. Those who assume that changes will be but temporary, or that they will happen without having to manage their consequences sensitively and positively, will surely come to regret behaving like the proverbial ostrich with its head buried in the sand.

So in this article I’ll share something of what I have learned through my work in helping organisations of all kinds with their change management initiatives – including in these last months through some online engagements.

First, we must “start with the end in mind”. Why is change needed? To enable what vision to be actualised, what purpose to be fulfilled? What is it about the present strategy and way of doing things that will prevent the actualisation of the vision and purpose?

“The way we doing things here” is as good a definition of culture as any… and, as Peter Drucker pointed out, “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. So what is that culture, what are those values, attitudes and behaviours which would overcome dysfunctionalities in the present culture? And given the gaps between the actual and the aspirational way of doing things, what will it take for people to migrate from the one to the other, in the context of the needed strategy?

I say migrate because change management – like teambuilding – is not something that can be achieved simply by going away to one of those nice lodges in Naivasha for a couple of days. Those who take the subject seriously accept that it involves a journey. Yes, the journey can be launched at such an event. Indeed it’s a good way to do so. And crucial to such a launch is spending time towards its end defining specific follow ups as to who must do what and by when.

To take the process from the necessary to the sufficient – which many stop short of doing – the participants must agree on how progress towards living that new needed way is to be assessed. What periodic feedback will be obtained regarding progress, for instance as in: none / a little / a lot / transformational? How will those involved celebrate what will have changed for the better while continuing to work on remaining challenges? And how will the expectation of ongoing continuous improvement feature?

To my surprise, I have come across clients who were planning to undergo a change management initiative separate from their teambuilding one. But discussing the need for teamwork as a critical change enabler with them, they agreed to merge the two into one. They readily accepted that to build a high performance team in this VUCA environment requires the agility to deal with change; and that where change must be handled, building trust between team members is more critical than ever. Yes, team qualities like agility and trust are essential for supporting change.

The most vital dependency for any change programme is positive, authentic leadership at board and senior management levels. Such leaders must visibly own the process and its purpose, and they must be role models for the target behaviour.

Then, given the fear and anxiety the term “change management” often provokes – however justified or otherwise – the question arises as to whether it’s good to call such initiatives by that name.

How can we nudge mindsets from negative emotions to more uplifting ones, as we encourage those involved to learn and to grow, expanding their competencies and their confidence, helping them become more empowered, recognised and motivated?

Such people will see change not as a threat but rather an opportunity, something to be looked forward to with joy and excitement… while accepting that life comes with its challenges and its ups and downs.

Now wonder Heraclitus concluded over two millennia ago that “since the very nature of life is change, to resist this natural flow is to resist the very essence of our existence”.