Blog: Brian Tolle

In Ann Arbor it's all about entrepreneurship and innovation. But do you have what it takes to flourish in the new economy? Consultant Brian Tolle has made a successful career out of coaching local start-ups and companies. He'll be blogging about the methods and mindset necessary to succeed as an entrepreneur.

Brian Tolle - Post 1: To Be An Innovative Entrepreneur

Two of my favorite subjects are innovation and entrepreneurship. What I have found to be the skill that links them is the ability to spot and leverage opportunities. At the core of spotting opportunities is the ability and desire to question, to challenge assumptions, to play with reality and turn the status quo on its head. This is why we often consider entrepreneurs creative, a gift nature bestowed on them at birth. We assume their minds work in different ways. But my experience, and others’ research, says that the ability to question is less an innate talent and more of a learned behavior.

With the economy in the dumps and our legacy auto companies going through significant transformation, lots of people are turning to innovation/entrepreneurship as the Holy Grail. So if you’re looking to getting your company growing again or moving your career in a better direction, what does it take for you to learn to be an innovative entrepreneur?

Research by professors Jeff Dyer, Hal Gregerson, and Clayton Christensen show that "innovative entrepreneurs” differ from executives on four behavioral patterns they use to acquire information:

1. questioning
2. observing
3. experimenting
4. idea networking

They also discovered that innovative entrepreneurs engaged in these behaviors with a cognitive bias against the status quo - in other words, innovative entrepreneurs consciously “seek to change the world or do something that no one has ever done before."

The common thread among these four behaviors is still the ability to question, whether it be “why can’t it work a different way?” or “why is it frustrating to do things that way?” or “why didn’t my idea work the way I thought it would? or “who has different ideas or perspectives from me that can help me challenge my thinking?” It all comes down to questioning, curiosity, and inquisitiveness.

So why can’t we buy cars at Target, Walmart, or Nordstrom’s? Why can’t I take a simple home test to tell me if I have dangerously low or high levels of a particular vitamin or nutrient? What if management training was available on your iPhone? Why can’t I update the photo of my house on Google Maps?  Get the idea?

To put a local spin on this, what I’ve seen in working with budding entrepreneurs in southeast Michigan is the natural tendency to come up with an idea that’s unusual and work hard to sell it as “innovative.” A telltale sign that an idea may not be as grounded in people’s needs is the degree to which you have to convince people of the idea’s worth. The harder the job in convincing others, the greater the likelihood you need to circle back and ground the idea in observations you have made. When you combine these observations with challenging the status quo, that’s when real innovative possibilities start to emerge.

A local entrepreneur who exemplifies these four behaviors in action is my colleague Bob Moesta of The ReWired Group. Our regular meetings are one big idea networking session and I always walk away jazzed and exhausted at the same time. His approach of grounding innovation efforts in first understanding “what is the job the customer is trying to accomplish” has opened my eyes to a wider range of innovation opportunities. He’s a great person to get to know.

In my next post, we'll explore each of the four behaviors and see where you fall on the range from "innovative entrepreneur" to "manager."