Entrepreneurs are not just the seed corn for future businesses and economic growth. They can also teach us what the future of work could look like.
Work today is surrounded by uncertainty and turbulence. The technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, such as AI, pose huge challenges for the quantity and quality of work in many manual and professional spheres. Investments move quickly between countries. Massive new businesses emerge in the space of a few years, and long-established businesses can go bust overnight.
These volatile circumstances profoundly affect the work we do and how we do it. The modern workplace is afflicted by “a plague of job dissatisfaction and a related epidemic of uncertainty about how to choose the right career”, says philosopher Roman Krznaric.
“Never have so many people felt so unfulfilled in their career roles, and been so unsure what to do about it.”
Rather than being cowed by uncertainty, entrepreneurs see the opportunities these circumstances present. Rather than being unfulfilled at work, they are highly motivated. They rise to the challenge of volatile and ambiguous work.
There will be more entrepreneurs in the future. Digital technologies in particular offer massive opportunities for rapid and low cost start-ups. Business schools are now focusing more on educating people who want to start their own businesses and social enterprises, rather than find jobs in large corporations.
As the number of entrepreneurs in the world of work increases, they offer lessons for everyone on how to become more entrepreneurial. Whether working in a large company, in the public or the third sector, the key to having a sustainable and satisfying working life lies in emulating the qualities of entrepreneurs.
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Entrepreneurs see opportunities and take risks. These talents and behaviours need to be supported, endorsed and incentivized by employers of all sorts. Not to encourage people with such skills is to restrict options for the future, and in a rapidly changing and unpredictable world, without options there is no future.
Some high-profile entrepreneurs have a poor reputation, due to their hyper-aggressive and confrontational style. This kind of entrepreneur does not provide a model for the future of work, which will instead rely on effective collaboration across boundaries, and teamwork to integrate insights and focus action in emerging and unpredictable circumstances. Operating with a zero-sum mentality - that the only way to win is for someone else to lose - is a short-term strategy in a highly-connected world, in which reputations for being co-operative, trustworthy and ethical are crucial.
One of the characteristics of entrepreneurs that we’ve been studying for years is their capacity to play. Their play is not foolish or indulgent, but a purposeful strategy pursued by people to give them distinctive advantages at work. This play is directed towards learning and adapting, and involves experimenting and exploring new ways of doing things. It is how people express their freedom to choose how they are going to work - to decide and not be told. Importantly, play is fun, and a workplace where there is enjoyment and laughter is more likely to be productive and capable of attracting and retaining talented staff.
As children, we learn through play. It is the way we test and stretch our abilities, it teaches us to cooperate with others, and it is how we learn about competition and rules. Play still comes naturally to us as adults, and our research identifies how play is a key aspect in the way successful entrepreneurs work.
Our studies of entrepreneurial designers, philanthropists, financiers, engineers, scientists, politicians and businesspeople show how they see opportunities and take risks while at the same time being playful. They explore and experiment, learn and adapt, express their freedom and have fun at work. While they work hard, that work is pleasurable and rewarding.
We also uncovered four key behaviours underlying the success of playful entrepreneurs. These hold lessons for the future of work for a much wider population.
This involves building resilience to drawbacks. You should see the inevitable failures that happen when you are innovating, or attempting to change, as opportunities to learn and improve. Cultivate a determination to succeed, and a mindset that sees setbacks as occasions to pivot in new directions.
This involves more than personal advancement. It includes being motivated by benefiting your community and society. When the objectives of work exceed the desire for greater salaries, further promotions, and the appreciation of colleagues and peers, and instead extend into making a difference and giving back to society, that work is likely to be more rewarding and sustainably useful.
This is the ability to design and make artefacts, and deliver services in complex and uncertain circumstances. It is the way solutions to problems are shaped by combining thought and data with experience and intuition. Having the ability to craft ideas into realities, based on education and practical experience, is extremely attractive in a rapidly changing and uncertain world.
This is an absence of hubris, and a generosity and warmth towards others. It is key to being able to build a loyal and productive team. As collaboration is such an important element of contemporary work, the ability to demonstrate respect and consideration towards others, and help unlock their potential, is an enduring need. As US President Harry Truman said, it is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.
The future of employment will continue to be uncertain for many. The key to satisfactory and rewarding work will be to cultivate behaviours which address, rather than fear, those uncertainties. It will involve nurturing skills distinctive from the abilities of algorithms and machine learning, involving creative insights, intuition and risk-taking. Entrepreneurs hold many lessons for surviving and thriving in the modern world of work, especially those adept at what we call play. As Plato said in the fourth century BC, “life must be lived as play”.
Mark Dodgson and David Gann are the co-authors of The Playful Entrepreneur, published by Yale University Press.