Clem Sunter

Toward a culture of entrepreneurship

2010-10-07 08:05

A fund manager recently being interviewed on Bloomberg said: "You'll know America is in recovery mode when the number of new businesses being opened across the country increases substantially." Get it? The future of the largest economy on the planet is directly correlated to the number of entrepreneurs starting to take risks again.

How do we change the culture of South Africa so that the people in high places make an observation like that? A specialist in transforming culture within companies maintains there are four steps:

Step 1. Change the frame of reference in which people operate so that they have to change their behaviour. As John Shook states in the Winter 2010 MIT Sloan Management Review: "It's easier to act your way to a new way of thinking than to think your way to a new way of acting."

As I mentioned in a previous article, we had a great example of that with the economic liberation of Afrikaners. When the tubes were removed in 1994, they had to come out of the ICU. They had to think like entrepreneurs, just like conscripts have to think like soldiers when they go to war.

Step 2. In the new frame of reference, appeal to people's emotions to adapt to the new ways and provide them with examples of success. For soldiers it's "God and country" and the victories that have already been won. At addiction clinics, it's getting the clientele to swap stories with all the gory detail so nobody feels alone; and then getting former addicts to relate how they have avoided relapsing into their old ways, by forging a new life.

Step 3. Provide a supportive environment which minimises the chances of reverting to the old form of behaviour. Changing an old mindset does not happen overnight so a balance has to be struck between reward and punishment which constantly incentivises people towards the new kind of behaviour. The obvious example in companies is to give training to staff so that they find it easier to achieve the new targets; and to make it clear to them that future increases in remuneration depend on how they have done under the new circumstances.

Step 4. Identify an incremental staircase of successes so that people feel that their hopes won’t be dashed because the chasm between the old and the new is too wide for them to jump. Celebrate every incremental success and create a bandwagon effect by challenging others to take the next step up the staircase. I have gone on ad nauseam about the numerous pockets of excellence we have in South Africa in virtually every sphere of society and how we must use them to raise everybody's game.

Creating a culture of entrepreneurship is not a magic carpet ride. It can be done. We need to identify those NGOs and communities in South Africa who have already started down the road of less top-down entitlement and more bottom-up empowerment. Then we have to set up a system of replication and back these initiatives with sufficient human and financial resources that failure is not an option. The revolution starts from the bottom. Don't wait for the top.

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