Niccolo Machiavelli wrote, “Entrepreneurs are simply those who understand that there is little difference between obstacle and opportunity and are able to turn both to their advantage.” Entrepreneurs seek out problems then design innovative, profitable solutions.
A group of students in Mexico, for example, went walking through a slum looking for a problem to solve. They saw piles of abandoned vinyl signs cluttering corners and roadsides. Whenever a company goes out of business, a move ends its run, or a sale is over, vinyl signs proclaiming “Limited engagement” and “50% off” start filling the streets.
Where you or I might see a messy obstacle, the students saw opportunity. They launched a business that turns vinyl into furniture.
Across the globe, in China, another group of students saw floors cluttered with discarded shells. They cleaned it up by launching a business that turns crushed shells into calcium-rich fertilizer to sell to farmers.
If this continues, there is hope. Entrepreneurs can save the world.
Enactus, an international nonprofit organization formerly known as Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE), is on a mission to ensure such profitable, social innovation continues. They run series of local, regional, national, and global competitions on more than 16,000 university campuses in 39 countries.
Alvin Rohrs, Enactus’ CEO, shared with me that students “start out by wanting to win a competition” that challenges them to show how students “use entrepreneurship to change peoples’ lives.” This enrolls them in a project that leaves them on the other side of a potentially life-changing experience. They realize that they can change the world.
This creates a problem and opportunity for you and your organization. These students, indeed generations of them, are entering the workforce, climbing up organizational charts. The problem is that eventually they may leave you to continue to experience the self-fulfilling empowerment they know is available to them as entrepreneurs. The opportunity is that if you can keep them, inspire them, and engage them, you can build an army of entrepreneurs, seeking out problems for you and converting them into profitable solutions.
What it will take to turn your problem into an opportunity? How can you get the innovative entrepreneurs in your organization, those who “see opportunities others don’t,” as Rohrs put it, working to support YOUR mission, vision, values, and strategy?
In Philadelphia the other day, I sat down with George Day, Wharton professor and the head of the Wharton Mack Center for Innovation Management. We talked around this question: If innovation is not only about R&D and patents, processes and product, if innovation is about the practices, behaviors, and actions your people take every day, how do you encourage it?
According to Day, to unlock more entrepreneurial, innovative behavior you should look at three factors:
- Talent: Types of people you hire and capabilities you develop in your people
- Configuration: Organizational structure and roles
- Incentives and feedback: How you measure and reward performance
These are the levers you pull to achieve a specific measurable outcome – to ensure that your people understand and are acting on your mission. Think of your people as your customers. Just as your customers walk up a ladder that leads from awareness of your brand to eventually, hopefully, being passionate buyers and advocates, your employees lie somewhere along a four-stage spectrum:
- Awareness of your mission
- Understanding it
- Believing in and being committed to it
- Acting on it (aligning their decisions and behavior to it)
You can actually poll your employees and ask them where they are. Do the same for your core values, vision, and strategic priorities.
Research indicates only 14% of employees understand their company’s strategy. So imagine what results you’d produce if you could empower innovators like those Enactus is producing to not only understand, but help you realize your strategy.
Measure them. Survey them. Calculate a baseline. Then, look for ways to change your levers – talent, organizational configuration, and incentives – to begin moving the needle toward nirvana: all of your employees actively, passionately, and creatively seeking opportunities to realize your shared strategy.