The Secret to Sparking the Startup Spirit

Fear of missing an opportunity drives the entrepreneurial spirit, says a leading expert on creativity.
Strategic Facilitation & Ideation, MatthewEMay.com
April 23, 2012

Henry Ford once said: "Whether you think you can or you can't, you're right."

This simple quote illustrates the difference between two kinds of fear, says Tina Seelig, executive director of Stanford University's Technology Ventures, in her new book inGenius.

Only one of them drives the entrepreneurial spirit.

"There are two distinct mindsets related to taking on challenges," she says. "Some people are driven by their strong fear of failure and therefore are unwilling to take on challenges that have a chance of not turning out well. Others are driven by their strong fear of missing an opportunity."

The latter group has the kind of entrepreneurial spirit needed to succeed in today's economic environment, says Seelig. They are "willing to take on projects that might not turn out as expected, because they don't want to miss the chance that it will succeed."

What do you do when that spirit is MIA in your company? It's a question many business owners and leaders have, especially those who have achieved a certain level of size and success.

One answer is to pare back the resources and recreate the kinds of limitations that drive new thinking. Roll back to the constraints that were in place at the beginning of your startup.

In her creativity course at Stanford, Seelig does an exercise showing how setting intelligent constraints can spark creativity and rekindle the entrepreneurial spirit.

"I decided to use a game to demonstrate that changing the constraints has a significant effect on creativity," she says. "I started with a standard Scrabble game, which nearly everyone in the U.S. knows how to play."

In Scrabble, players pick seven letters and have to create words using those letters on a board, building on another word that has already been placed. You build out from the center, stretching toward the edges of the board to reach the squares that earn a triple letter or, ultimately, a triple-word score. As they build, players get double-letter and double-word scores. And there is a big 50-point bonus for using all seven letters.

"The Scrabble board is very structured, and there are clear incentives," explains Tina. "I brought eight Scrabble boards to class and let the students play. Once they settled in, though, I changed the rules of the game on them every 10 minutes. Some of the new rules removed constraints, and others increased them."

For example, to reduce constraints, she allowed players to pick nine letters instead of seven, to use proper names or to use foreign words. To increase constraints, she required players to add only four-letter words, to build each new word onto the prior word only, or to add a word to the board within a certain time limit.

"The results were wonderfully surprising," according to Tina. "Whenever I loosened the rules, there was an audible cheer, and when I tightened the rules the students groaned. But the cheers were misleading. You would think that the players would score more points and be more creative when the rules were looser."

That wasn't the case.

"The students were more creative—and earned more points—when there were tighter constraints. For example, when the rules were loosened to include proper names, one student put down a jumble of letters and claimed this was the name of her future child. Although it was funny, all agreed that this was a sloppy response rather than a creative solution."

"When the constraints were increased," she continues, "the students had to be more creative. In addition, the competition around the board broke down. Those playing each game had to work together to reach their individual goals, and they collectively earned more points."

In the end, the students decided that the original Scrabble rules provide the perfect constraints, and that’s why the game has thrived for so long. But they also realized that adding and subtracting constraints drastically changed their experience.

"They walked away with a new appreciation for the sensitive levers they have at their disposal when they manage or are part of creative teams," Tina concludes. "They realized that they should fully appreciate the goals they have in mind and put constraints in place to inspire others to reach them."

Maybe you didn't start in the garage or attic, but nearly every successful startup begins with very little of everything: money, space, manpower. You had a goal, and a passion for reaching it.

It's those limits that made you more creative and resourceful, more entrepreneurial. So to spark the startup spirit, recreate the constraints of the startup environment.

Photo credit: Thinkstock

Strategic Facilitation & Ideation, MatthewEMay.com