Why All Entrepreneurs Are Designers

In my recent post on Effectuation, I highlighted the work of Dr. Saras Sarasvathy, who coined the term.

One of the points she makes in her book is that entrepreneurship is a branch of design thinking. This is an absolutely brilliant insight.

First, if you are the sort who thinks that design is a discipline centered around making chairs, teapots, web pages, or books, you should read up on the topic (see below). Design is a pattern for thinking, and while design thinking often produces the “beautiful things” which we have traditionally associated with design, widespread application of design thinking is beginning to have far-reaching effects on our society.

Design thinking starts with a simple grab-bag of elements: one or more goals, and one or more constraints. Constraints might be size, cost, weight, and psychological properties of the user. Goals might be to solve a particular problem or to make money. It is then the designer’s job to propose a solution that carefully considers the effects of the available solutions to propose the best possible, most beautiful and simplest solution.

What do I mean by the effects of a solution? If you follow popular mathematics at all, you might be familiar with the work of Benoit Mandelbrot, who suggests that reality is fractal and folds in on itself to produce patterns of amazing complexity from simple constraints. Mandelbrot’s formulae are a kind of simple design constraint that produce patterns of stunning complexity.

Similarly, designers can create complex patterns on the world by building systems or objects that include very simple design constraints. We see examples of these effects every day: the poorly designed chair that pulls apart its base after a bit of use, or the well-placed door handle that gets shinier and more beautiful with every use.

But these are just objects. What about systems and institutions like the United States government or the American public school system? The US Constitution is a piece of design, as are the laws that built our school system. The effects that those designs are now producing are sometimes more corrosive than their designers would ever have imagined. Both of those institutions are in need of “design refreshes” to clear away unintended corrosive effects.

Entrepeneurship and Design

Sarasvathy suggests that in the process of effectuation, the entrepreneur first makes an assessment of what assets and connections are available to them and then asks the simple question, “What can I do with it?”

At this moment, the entrepreneur becomes a designer. They are looking at what they have as design constraints and trying to move themselves closer to their goals. Sarasvathy makes a key additional insight; after the first round, the entrepreneur asks, “What else can I do with it?”

This puts the entrepreneur into the position of being a broad-based free-thinker, going beyond the simple condition of “how do I work within these constraints to achieve a goal,” but instead towards the question “what is the set of goals that I can achieve elegantly within these constraints?” This is a powerful inversion and is one that gives an imaginative entrepreneur an amazing power to transform society.

And here is a key point of difference between society’s conception of designers and entrepreneurs, even though they effectively perform much of the same kind of thinking: a designer is typically handed constraints and goals and asked to produce a product. An entrepreneur is issued constraints (the context of their life situation) without specific goals and rises to the opportunity to choose both the goals and the path.

I sometimes get frustrated with “designers and architects” because they cannot think of their own work outside of the context of their clients. They blame their own inability to do great work on the lack of vision of their clients, and I have to say I am apathetic to that line of thinking. It is time that designers and architects throw off the shackles of their clients and become entrepreneurs themselves. Show us what you believe, not what you can be paid to do.

Great entrepreneurs have been finding ways to finance their own design thinking for eons. It’s time that businesspeople start understanding that they are designers, and it’s way past time for the greatest designers to become their own clients and produce the great work they are called to create.

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