For a long time now I have had real concerns about the focus of policy makers, and the projects that they spawn, on ‘enterprise’ and ‘entrepreneurship’ as being just too business oriented. It is as if the only fields of human endeavour that matter are commerce of some kind. Making money or fixing societies ills.
This is especially un-nerving when you see it played out in our primary schools as 6 year olds are encouraged to wear badges that proclaim them be a ‘Sales Director’, an ‘Operations Manager’ or a ‘Brand Executive’. Yuk!
What about all of those other great fields of human endeavour?
Climbing mountains, making art, having fun, playing sport, writing, cooking and so on.
What if we encouraged our 6 year olds to wear badges that proclaimed them to be ‘Footballer in Training’, ‘Ballet Dancer under Construction’, ‘Surgeon to Be’ or ‘The Next Michael McIntyre’? OK, so perhaps we don’t need another Michael McIntyre…. but you get my point?
Because what really matters is not exposing more people to the world of business and entrepreneurship. It is to get them imagining possible futures, and learning how best to navigate towards them. It is about developing people with a sense of agency and influence over their own futures. It is about building a generation with both power and compassion. And a generation who really understand how to use the tools of collaboration, association and cooperation in pursuit of mutual progress.
Does it really only matter if their chosen endeavour contributes to GVA? Or is there more to our humanity that we need to recognise and encourage through both our policy and practice?
And this is not just an issue in schools. It runs like a plague through our communities from cradle to grave.
I think this is important because we lose so many who are completely turned off by the thought of a world of commerce (and let’s face it we don’t all want to dive headlong into a world of Dragon’s Den and The Apprentice).
So what about if instead of focussing on enterprise and entrepreneurship we attempted to throw our net wider and to encourage and support people to build their power and compassion in whatever they choose to be their particular fields of human endeavour?
I visited a really great community centre recently. Busy, friendly, homespun, clearly doing great work in and with the community. We were using several rooms, one of which was called the ‘Enterprise Hub’. It was spotlessly clean, airy, spacious and well furnished, just like every other room in the building. But for the life of me I could not work out what made it an ‘Enterprise Hub’. It was not set up for hot desking, there were no PCs, no mail boxes, none of the usual paraphernalia…
So I asked the centre manager about the Enterprise Hub. The answer surprised me – but it shouldn’t have done. They were looking for cash to modernise and re-decorate the room and in conversation with the local authority it become clear that the only budget with cash available was in ‘Enterprise’.
‘They said if we called it an Enterprise Hub we could have the cash.’
I love the way this demonstrates the inherent enterprise of the community centre management team in tracking down the cash that they need to ‘get the job done’. I am less impressed by what it says about some investments in ‘enterprise’. I can just imagine the report to the councillors about the new enterprise hub…
I remember a colleague saying to me at the launch of a major enterprise initiative,
‘The problem is that many of the people in this room don’t really understand enterprise. They don’t live it and breathe it. If the Government was announcing a major initiative to invest in duck farming, because an economist had said THAT is the future of the UK economy, many of these same people would be in the room, nodding sagely, and would run home to invent new policies to encourage duck farming’.
For a few years now I seem to have been living in Groundhog Day. Not everyday, but enough to be disconcerting.
I will be chatting with an enterprise professional, perhaps a lecturer in a University, an enterprise coach in a ‘deprived’ community, a start-up business adviser or a bureaucrat managing an enterprise project. In our conversations about enterprise we will recognise how it is not all about business. How enterprise can be expressed in a seemingly infinite number of ways. Sure, for a significant and important minority, it is about commercial endeavour. Business, profit, and social impact in some combination. In order to express their enterprising soul a minority have to start a business.
But for the majority being enterprising, being proactive in pursuit of a better future, does not mean starting up a business. It may mean making a phone call, having a conversation, calling a meeting or writing a letter. Taking some action that increases agency and power in pursuing a preferred future. It may be taking the opportunity to reflect on ‘The direction in which progress lies‘, or ‘What are the next steps that I can take to make progress?‘ or ‘What options have I got?‘
We will reflect on how some of the most enterprising people we know may work in the Council, or the University, or organise festivals and campaigns in the community. That the enterprising soul finds its expressions in many forms and not just in entrepreneurship.
We will agree that the real point of leverage in our communities lies not in providing start-up advice with those who are already minded to start a business, although of course this IS important. The real leverage lies in helping more people to establish the direction in which progress lies for them and their loved ones and helping them to plan and execute actions designed to move them in that direction.
If we can significantly increase the stock of enterprising people then, as sure as eggs is eggs, we will also increase the stock of entrepreneurial people. And we will not lose so many who are completely turned off by enterprise because of the Gordon Gecko or Victorian perceptions of enterprise nurtured by the reality TV shows and newspaper headlines.
We will also increase the survival rate of new businesses as people make natural progress into entrepreneurship instead of being persuaded to start a business (‘all you need is the idea and the determination to succeed’) when they have not yet gained the real skills or capital that they will need to succeed.
In our conversations we will agree on these things. And then almost invariably they will head off to run another course on ‘Marketing and Sales’ or ‘Business Planning’ or to look at monitoring returns that count bums on seats and business start-up rates.
If ever there was an industry that needed to innovate and re-invent itself and its role in modern Britain it is the enterprise industry. If we really want to build a much more enterprising Britain then we need to break the stranglehold that the business start-up industry has on enterprise policy.
This might be just one of the ideas we can explore at Enterprising Communities: The Big Conversation in Leeds on May 19th.