The Art of Imaginative Deliberation

“Why isn’t there such a thing as dog day care?”"I shouldn’t have to ignore my children for two hours to fix dinner – there must be a better way!”“My 3-year-old daughter corrects my Spanish all the time. Why can’t other families share this gift?” Questions like these – from real-life Twin Cities businesses – illustrate…

“Why isn’t there such a thing as dog day care?”"I shouldn’t have to ignore my children for two hours to fix dinner – there must be a better way!”“My 3-year-old daughter corrects my Spanish all the time. Why can’t other families share this gift?”

Questions like these – from real-life Twin Cities businesses – illustrate the creative essence of entrepreneurial studies. As case studies, they also can become vehicles for bringing entrepreneurial thinking into our classrooms and for exploring the sort of principled entrepreneurial decision making that we at St. Thomas wish to encourage.

As members of a young field, entrepreneurship scholars are often asked what makes their subject unique. I believe the distinction is that entrepreneurship involves the creation of markets for new  goods and services that have never before existed; thus, entrepreneurship is a creative enterprise at heart.

The common denominator in studying all types of ventures and the entrepreneurs who create them is the emphasis on creativity. We do not assume the prior existence of the firm, the product or service, or the market. Entrepreneurship starts before birth. It deals not with the process of business optimization, but with the creative process of original formation of products and markets.

Dog Days created dog day care in St Paul, Mix It Up Meals in White Bear Lake is creating a market for self-assembly freezer dinners, and Mis Amigos has created a class of preschool students fluent in Spanish in Plymouth.

This creative perspective has influenced my interests in research and teaching in the area of entrepreneurship. Considering entrepreneurship as creative action has significant ethical implications on decision making, while focusing on creative action demands that we develop ways of teaching entrepreneurial thinking, imagination and personal judgment rather than simply emphasizing planning, calculative rationality and profit maximization.

Entrepreneurial decision makingUnderstanding how ethics impacts entrepreneurial decision making is important for at least three reasons. First, from the perspective of creative action, entrepreneurship is inherently involved with ethics. As entrepreneurship creates markets for new products and services, it has a remarkable impact on the way we live and interact with each other. We only need to consider the impact of innovations such as digital camera phones, stem cell research or genetically modified foods to realize that entrepreneurship is an ethical process from the ground up.

Of course, being inherently ethical does not mean to imply that entrepreneurship is a “good” process, but rather to say that the process of entrepreneurship inevitably involves ethical dimensions that can result in both great goods and great harms; thus, creating new markets for products and services in ways that enrich – as opposed to diminish – our lives should be a fundamental part of the entrepreneurial process.

Second, today’s technologies are expanding our knowledge and capabilities at a rate much faster than society’s norms can adapt. Entrepreneurs often operate in an ethical time lag, ahead of societal consensus, ahead of the law, and often as part of a small group that is uniquely capable of understanding the implications of their innovation.

Third, in these pioneering situations, traditional decision-making frameworks often provide little guidance. For instance, costbenefit analysis is impossible when the potential outcomes of exploratory research are unclear. As a result, entrepreneurs often rely on their own judgment and deliberations to make critical decisions.

Early research shows that experienced innovators frequently engage in a pattern of decision-making activity that I call “imaginative deliberation.” These individuals tend to give consideration to a wide range of stakeholders, identify multiple ethical dimensions in problems, creatively challenge case facts, use analogies and personal experiences to think through the issues, and consider the qualitative aspects of the situation. In general they reject a decision-making process based on calculative rationalization.

Entrepreneurial case studiesIn teaching entrepreneurship as a form of creative action, there is a critical role for experiential  learning through case studies. This approach has a number of specific advantages. First, the case method forces students to develop their own creative solutions to entrepreneurial problems. There is no single right answer they must achieve.

Second, cases require that students adapt tools and theories of business to the sort of messy integrated marketing, finance andhuman resources dilemmas that real entrepreneurs face.

Third, case studies allow students to study both entrepreneurs and their ventures. The  entrepreneur’s personal values drive the product he or she creates, which in turn drives the market; thus, a good case study requires students to analyze how the personal beliefs, character and lives of the entrepreneurs affect the businesses that they build.

Because cases work best when students can relate personally with the protagonists, I recently began developing materials based on some local Twin Cities businesses, including Dog Days, Mix It Up Meals and Mis Amigos. The entrepreneurs are invited to participate in class discussions, where students get a firsthand feel for the entrepreneurial experience.

Meeting an entrepreneur, students are forced to consider that entrepreneurial motivations and strategies might be more complex than simply trying to maximize profits. They begin to realize the importance of the personal beliefs and principles that operate behind most entrepreneurial  businesses.

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