Can entrepreneurial skills be learned? I think teaching, developing and perfecting entrepreneurial skills, attitudes and abilities is a combination of nature and nurture, and I've dedicated a lot of time testing the hypothesis.
The analogy I use is based on my experience as an academic surgeon at the University of Colorado Denver teaching students, residents and fellows. I've concluded that I can't teach someone to be a surgeon, but I can teach him or her how to do surgery. The surgical mindset is innate. As we all know, we self-select our medical careers based on the right fit between our inborn abilities and the demands of the specialty. You can call it finding the right medical personality or identifying with our mentors or teachers, but, in the end, we all find the right fit to match our talents or move on.
Similarly, I can teach someone the skills involved with entrepreneurship and how to create a life science business. I can't teach him/her how to be an entrepreneur. I think those abilities and talents are hard-wired. They can be developed, practiced and refined, but ultimately, if you don't have the right stuff, you will struggle and fail.
If you think you've got the right stuff, a new book, “The Innovator's DNA,” describes the five skills of successful entrepreneurs.
They are associating, observing, experimenting, questioning and networking, described as follows:
- Associating. Innovators "connect the dots." They accumulate information from diverse sources and create pattern maps of innovation that others don't see. Putting this information on their cerebral shelves, they can extract it at the right time when they see an application that others don't.
- Observing. Innovators are "intense observers" and so are able to spot patient needs and emerging "weak signals." They are problem seekers, not problem solvers. They don't rely on linear technology models, but rather on the more intuitive non-linear processes of innovation, such as structured serendipity, exporting and failure. Just ask Alexander Fleming. Innovators are always observing.
- Experimenting. Innovators try things just to see if they work, while others want to know if they will work before they try them. They create assumptions and challenge them with experiments with measurable outcomes. If business Plan A does not work, they try something else and move to Plan B quickly before it's too late.
- Questioning. Innovators are curious, and they ask questions -- not just because they are after something, but because they enjoy the journey of discovery. They challenge existing assumptions and paradigms (stomach ulcers are caused by bacteria, not stress); they constantly ask "What if?” (What if we eliminate fee-for-service to create a better healthcare model?) and "Why?" (Why do we need boots to cover our shoes in the OR?)
- Networking. Finally, innovators are great networkers and they network without a precise goal in mind. They like meeting and talking to new people with opposing views and with seemingly unrelated interests. This gives them access to a breadth of information and resources more diverse than less-innovative people. Most doctors grow up and are culturally educated in a silo. Innovation erupts from interactions with people unlike you, people with a different view of the world and diverse life experiences.
Try competing in the entrepreneur's pentathlon. The events are associating, observing, experimenting, questioning and networking. With enough practice, before you know it, you'll have gold hanging around your neck.