Beyond Entrepreneurship

Posted by on 07.08.2010 in business, creativity, web

A few years ago I started developing what I call the “open conceptual enterprise.” The idea is that we need to rethink our basic assumptions about business not just in the context of different kinds of businesses but in the context of all types of human enterprise.

By “enterprise” I mean the general impulse to go out into the proverbial wilderness, to go on a quest and take risks, hoping to come back with something of value: Exploration is enterprise. Invention is enterprise. Science is enterprise. Art is enterprise. Social missions can be enterprises. And of course commerce is enterprise. It’s been fairly hypothetical, but the way the Internet is opening everything and mixing up the old categories, I’m getting a better sense of how to explain this stuff in more concrete terms.

Look at Google’s recent failure with Wave. (For the record, I was a fan.) The Google narrative has corresponded with the attitude that failure is good (or at least useful — or at least unavoidable) but with more and more episodes like Wave and Buzz, that story is moving into a new chapter.

Jeff Jarvis captured it pretty well here, I think:

The reason these efforts were busts is because Google didn’t think them through, didn’t have the corporate discipline to find and execute on clear-eyed strategy. I’m all for beta — I learned that lesson from Google — but you can’t just spend your life throwing shit against the wall to see what sticks. Eventually, you’re knee-deep in shit. But you can do that for a long time — if you have lots of money. A poor startup uses betas to learn precious lessons because they can’t afford to fail. This rich company is using betas, I fear, rather than making hard decisions up front — because it can afford to. So Wave may have ended up dead anyway but if it were run by entrepreneurs it would have struggled long and hard before taking its last breath.

And he goes on to express “worry that Google isn’t an entrepreneurial company anymore… it may be too big for its own good.”

Here’s where we need to think more generally about what it is about entrepreneurism that is so essential for sustained success. Entrepreneurship is about innovation and autonomy. The innovation aspect is about maintaining the “perennial gale of creative destruction,” without which organizations tend to accumulate a lot of dead weight, making them susceptible to total destruction.

More importantly, the human spirit needs adventure, i.e. enterprise. We need to feel like we’re going somewhere, and we need at least some sense of uncertainty in the outcome — or at least the journey there — and we need to feel like our presence matters. The latter can be accomplished in different ways: we can experience it through self-determination or by belonging to something bigger than ourselves. Optimally, for sustainable enterprise, I think we ought to strive for a combination of both, as they’re not mutually exclusive. As long as we have a sense of autonomy (i.e. we haven’t been coerced or subjected against our wills), and we’re recognized and treated as the unique persons we believe we are (i.e. our uniqueness is appreciated and we’re compensated appropriately), and we’re able to have a visible, positive effect through our actions.

There are ditches on both sides of that road: two extremes at which the spirit of enterprise can be lost. If a culture is too conformist, then everyone gives lip service to their shared purpose but since everyone is shallowly feeding each others’ egos, people realize the ego reinforcement they’re receiving is pretty much meaningless. But conversely, if a culture is too individualistic (the way in which entrepreneurship leans), then everyone is too busy doing their own thing to provide recognition and feedback for each other.

I get the impression that Google may be slipping into the former latter (I speculate here reluctantly, with no first-hand knowledge): people are free to develop their own ideas [in their “20% time”] but a lot of employees feel like nobody’s listening [again, speculating], as indicated by the high-profile defections of some of their biggest former stars.

So counterintuitively, if they moved away from their divergent, entrepreneur-minded culture, they might actually gain more motivation and momentum as an enterprise by emphasizing the company’s core purpose, articulating the path towards it, and reinforcing employees’ efforts that are convergent with that — something more along the lines of science and social enterprise. (I owe the recent OpenIDEO launch for some of this inspiration.) With this change of mindset, the “shit” they’re standing in looks less like refuse and more like fertilizer and soil they need to cultivate sustainable growth.

For example, Google could, as a whole company, focus on the problem of how they can make this shift, as a kind of “moon-shot,” to use the cliché. What tools can they build [or refine] to facilitate more focused, company-wide collaboration?

Remember this is exactly the problem which the Web was invented to solve: to connect the vast expertise among thousands of researchers and engineers across an awkwardly large organization. I know Google already does this to some extent, but clearly, judging by all the gaps and redundancies across their mind-boggling array of apparently-could-be-terminated-at-any-moment projects, whatever they’re doing isn’t working... or not as well as it could, at least.

So my challenge to Google is: instead of just asking what email would be if it was invented today, as they did with Wave, ask what a corporation could be if it was invented today… combining the best features of all the old categories into a powerful new platform.