Are entrepreneurs heroic figures or system builders?

It’s a tough call on who wins this one: Marc Ventresca in his  TEDx talk Don’t Be an Entrepreneur, Build Systems, or Ted McCracken in his critique Who and What Is an Entrepreneur?  on the HBR Blog Network.  Elements of both ring true in my experience.

Where Ventresca sees entrepreneurs as system builders “marshaling, mobilizing, and connecting different worlds”, McCracken counters with…

The way we think about the world, about the realm of the possible… [is] formed by our culture. To invent new things, we are obliged to leave this culture and investigate a world that is relatively formless and strange.

Of course, you can always identify the familiar elements in the new, but I believe it is wrong to treat this as proof that the entrepreneur was merely combining extant elements… Even when existing elements reappear in the new combination, they assume an entirely different significance. We know this because entrepreneurs are always telling us about the epiphany of discovery, the one that created the new by effectively reinventing the old.

McCracken has me on both counts here.  There was a ‘shell book’ epiphany — in April 1989, when I was an ‘ordinary working linguist’ (OWL) living among the Qoqwaiyeqwase people in Papua New Guinea — and existing elements have “assumed an entirely different significance” over the years as the  Shellbook system developed.

He’s got me on much of this one, too, especially on the parts about ‘going where no one has gone before’ and how that’s ‘really very difficult’.

Working outside the capsule of culture is really very difficult. We are changing the ideas with which we are trying to think about ideas. This is roughly akin to rebuilding a spacecraft as we fly it. That’s why the Romantic metaphor, the one that casts entrepreneurs as heroic figures, is more apt. They truly are going where no one has gone before.

Do you have any idea how many OWLs have had an epiphany of one sort or another after years-long immersion in a remote village community with a radically different language and cultural perspective? Lots, actually! And I can tell you from my own experience that experts of all stripes value OWL epiphanies at about a dime a dozen, if that.

So, even after the simple shell book localization method essentially went viral at the grassroots in hundreds of PNG languages, it took years before  the full epiphany of a scalable, sustainable shell book system got much of a hearing.

With the Shellbook System finally starting to gain serious traction over the past 6 months, the allure of McCracken’s rationale for thinking of myself as a heroic figure is almost irresistible.

Unfortunately for my ego, we only got here because a host of people –virtually all of them much smarter and innovative than me — have been good at “marshaling, mobilizing, and connecting different worlds” over the past 24 years.

Which is why Dr Ventresca’s TEDx talk got my vote in the end…

P.S. I learned yesterday that Dr Ventresca will be joining Dr Paul Kim as an instructor for the second Designing a New Learning Environment  course next fall.  I highly recommend this  free, project-based Stanford Online course if you are passionate about the future of  education anywhere in the world.

I just might have to sit in on the course again myself!  I’d like to know more about Dr Ventresca’s perspective on how…

value creation really comes from the assembly of heterogeneous elements.

I’m sure it will be insightful, and if the people and project dynamic is anything like DNLE #1, we’ll certainly have opportunity to assemble heterogeneous elements and create value!

[Many thanks to Sudarshan R and Marc Schnau for the information on DNLE #2 and the TEDxOxbridge link.]