Entrepreneurship: A Balancing Act

When teaching entrepreneurship and associated innovation activities, I am always asked if there are any specific characteristics that successful entrepreneurs and innovators commonly manifest.  My short response is yes, there are observable behaviors that can be seen as correlated with innovation, but so much depends on such factors as an individual’s cognitive style (and resulting cognitive biases), situational context, and organizational culture. When you consider which characteristics most support the entrepreneur during venture development, so much happens throughout the process. Required ways of thinking and behavior change as one moves from understanding the problem to be solved through activities that support the design of efficacious solutions to scaling said solutions for optimal impact. I think this is why when you observe an entrepreneur’s common behaviors,  they may often seem to be paradoxical or even mutually exclusive. 
Part of the reason for these apparent contradictions is that successful entrepreneurs seem to have the ability to deal with conflicts and find a balance between different conditions and personal reactions. Here are some examples to consider.

  • Ambiguity—Planning. Start-up companies are usually exploring new opportunities where data, details, and the environment may be largely unknown. Yet without a plan, entrepreneurs do not have a basis on which to make decisions. Yet the discipline of business planning is rarely followed. We have found effective innovation comes from the entrepreneur’s ability to thrive on uncertainty while being able to prioritize and stay focused on what is happening at present. Successful innovators are always goal-oriented and know how to take small steps towards longer-term objectives.
  • Creativity—Discipline. Many, though not all, start-up companies are based on a new idea or an innovative solution to an existing need. However, if everyone is creating new things all the time, then nothing will actually get done. Successful entrepreneurs know when it is time to realize a product in the market and aim innovation towards future iterations. This is especially important in early product development when it is important to get product iterations into the customers’ hands quickly. 
  • Urgency—Patience. Entrepreneurs are driven, people. Yet real advances take longer than planned—always.  Every day presents a new challenge and a possible change of direction. These conditions warrant founders to be both focused on present events and aware of possible future outcomes. 
  • Flexibility—Organization. The need to respond rapidly to changing circumstances, new ideas, opportunities, and threats with limited resources requires a great deal of flexibility and the ability to change direction quickly. As the start-up grows, it is impossible for the founders to control everything and make all the decisions. An organizational structure must be put in place, which inevitably begins to prevent just the flexibility that is needed for success.
  • Risk-Taking—Risk Management. Entrepreneurs are usually risk-takers, yet too much risk can hinder an organization’s growth and certainly may turn away investors. Effective risk management behaviors include a combination of research-driven experimentation and problem-solving skills.


As you embark on your entrepreneurial journey, it is worth taking note of where you fit in the above dimensions and consider developing strengths in select areas and finding team members that complement your skills and behaviors. As a starting point, I usually have students complete a worksheet (shown below) that helps to identify specific entrepreneurial behaviors and skills. The worksheet covers many of the important characteristics that help balance seemingly competing pressures during the venture development process. The worksheet is designed so that entrepreneurs can consider which behaviors and skills they would like to develop further and what steps should be taken to accomplish said goals. This can also be done as a team exercise where members share their results and decide on a collective development plan.  Feel free to email me at jm732@columbia.edu if you would like a copy of the worksheet. 

Next Up

Over the next couple of blog posts, I will share other tools we use to help aspiring entrepreneurs and active founders reflect on their thinking and behaviors, find their balance, and stay resilient throughout the roller coaster ride of venture development and realization.

For more on this subject and other entrepreneurship topics, get a copy of Patterns of Entrepreneurship Management, 6th Edition.

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