“I want to offer a shift in perspective, not looking at the system as a whole and people as a source of labour or skills… I want to focus on individual people and take their point of view as a source of aspiration, looking for meaning, trying to make a positive impact on the world. My focus is on developing entrepreneurial thinking.”
This was the opening gambit of Professor Dimo Dimov, Professor of Innovation & Entrepreneurship at the University of Bath in the United Kingdom. Dimov is also co-founder of Kinetic Thinking. He was speaking at Universities South Africa’s 2nd Higher Education Conference that was jointly hosted with the Council on Higher Education (CHE) recently.
Professor Dimov (left) said he was giving a “ground level perspective” — adding that ours is a new 4IR world where the physical, biological and digital blend to make the environment a lot more complex.
From an entrepreneurial and innovation point of view, the impact of this is prominent in two ways, he said. On the one hand, there are digital technologies and their accessibilities, and they do three things:
- They enable us to reach large audiences very quickly through the power of social networks.
- They make knowledge accessible. Universities should consider their role as courses are now available for students to source knowledge globally.
- They allow experimentation. Productivity tools, available in the cloud, allow the creation of prototypes, the ability to illustrate ideas, and for easy communication. “I’ve seen students go from watching to producing something to show to the world within half a day.”
On the other hand, a significant number of new-generation students are primarily interested in starting their own business. Professor Dimov’s UK figures were surprising: over a quarter of UK university students had that aspiration, with research showing that 10% do start a business while at university.
This is a response to two things: the idea of lifelong employment trying to sell skills in a job market and companies offering jobs. “Students see a shift in that environment and so they can create their own jobs. That’s where their entrepreneurial spirit comes from.” He says that the desire to make a social impact, not just economic motivation, is strong. A strong social component lets them leverage and mobilise their peers quickly for early feedback or traction for their ideas.
“These two forces – digital technology and this personal drive create a very vibrant entrepreneurial space.”
Unreasonableness is key
The professor quoted George Bernard Shaw: The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable man persists in adapting the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.
“Think about what unreasonable means: going against the consensus.” Prominent venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, who founded Netscape’s first browser in 1994, said venture capitalists often found success in ideas that ‘looked crazy, or appeared to be absurd’. “I hope you can see the parallel between non-reasonable and crazy as something that generates impact. This corresponds to the theory of the entrepreneur as innovator who changes and disrupts things. But not in a way that can be anticipated beforehand.”
Things that work well in a consensus space generate what economists call normal returns. Investment in good areas that can fail is called abnormal failure in that failure was unexpected. Abnormal returns, he said, come from succeeding in a non-consensus space. Normal failing comes when we go against the grain, and normal expectations are that it would not work out.
Universities as repositories of knowledge
“This is interesting in the context of universities and entrepreneurship because the idea of consensus/non-consensus has to do with knowledge. In knowledge we look for facts: what is the way of the world and how can we explain it?” Knowledge, he said, enables us to talk about ideas and say what is a good or bad idea.
The university, as a space that disseminates knowledge, should enable people to engage in non-consensus areas as a way of pushing boundaries (trying out a crazy, absurd idea in a safe environment). “Entrepreneurship is about taking those ideas forward so they can be reviewed across time as working out or not. This is the intersection between Universities and entrepreneurship. To do things, we would like to know first if what we have is a good idea; whether to proceed or not. “Often, we need to do things first in order to know. This is what experimentation and serendipity gives us.
“By doing things, we are able to create new knowledge which again expands our knowledge, enabling us to do yet newer things.”
Agents of change
Professor Dimov said: “In my teaching, I see the space in which we explore as a triangle of three things.
- As agents of change: “We like to imagine the way the world would be; see impact in the market – whether in new products or services, things that do not exist, or improvements to existing things…I call this a process of training – this is an exercise of imagination.
- Making this real needs the process of modelling – the business model or design ultimately determines success or failure.
- Building the business once there is a viable business model (this is where skills come into play) requires execution, making things work.
It is a moving role, he says, where things are constantly changing. “Bring in new people and you get more concepts; change your concept and the model changes too. If the current model is not executable you adopt the model, change the frame.”
Engaging with the world
This, he said, places the focus on the entrepreneur as a thinker engaging with the world. As the world responds the entrepreneur is able to think about what to do next. “I call this a Shift Of Stance where we are not engaged with the world in a linear way, where we just do things, observe the outcome and try again.
“At every point on the way – I call this a Recursive Rule – we get to reflect about who we are, the meaning of where we operate and the way we’re trying to engage. Here we can shift gear, reframe, pivot – we can respond.” When we act, the world responds and consequences are generated.
“But the really powerful feedback loop is that when the world responds, we can revisit our premises and our commitments and we can act and react again. This is the space we can think about how we engage with students, how we can develop thinking and how we can work with them,” he said.
Realm of meaning
He added: “The premise of what we take is true and what we want to make true is a realm of meaning – it could be based on culture, it could be based on socialisation, on our experience – on all the things we take for granted on which we construct the meaning of the world around us.
These are three primary ideas in this space of thinking:
- Meaning – this arises from our thinking
- Systems – everything is interconnected and we’re never in full control
- Recursivity – is our ability to respond to things each step of the way.
Work done at the University of Bath provided a conceptual framework for thinking about the entrepreneur as an agent of change, engaged with the world and trying to navigate stable regulated systems, and ones based on novelty where new ideas push boundaries. Complexity and learning arise from this interplay, he said.
“We work with students or teams through the assessment instrument we’ve created to help people visualise their thinking. We are able to see thinking as this vast cloud; we are able to see diversity in thinking and universities and teams and organisations, and we can begin to think about how we can best leverage this.”
Professor Dimov said the main goal of educators is to unlock and develop new ways of thinking in people “where we can move from our default way of thinking – which reflects our socialisation, our experience and habits to becoming able to respond to situations in differently.
“This gives us a way of engaging with thinking as a wide spectrum where we can move away from the familiar, and imagine wild, absurd things in this exciting realm of surprises.
Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.