Encouraging Researchers to Think Outside the Box

Can you ‘Plug & Play’ entrepreneurial thinking into any situation? I have been asking myself this question recently

Can you ‘Plug & Play’ entrepreneurial thinking into any situation?

I have been asking myself this question recently because I keep being presented with opportunities to design and deliver programmes in a wide range of settings with the common theme of stimulating an entrepreneurial mindset. That’s partly because I am part of the GCRF-funded RECIRCULATE project. You might be asking, what has “stimulating an entrepreneurial mindset” got to do with GCRF, which is the Global Challenges Research Fund. GCRF funds collaborative research that will contribute to the delivery of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  Do the researchers interested in the SDG’s need an “entrepreneurial mind-set”?   Or indeed any researchers?

The debate within the RECIRCULATE community suggests that these are more controversial questions than I had realised. So let me be clear from the outset, I don’t think entrepreneurial thinking can solve all the world’s problems! However, based purely on my own experience, yes, I know this is anecdotal, I have increasingly come to believe that entrepreneurial thinking can play a critical role in empowering people to take action to improve their situation.

That immediately leads to another question. What do I mean by “entrepreneurial thinking”? If you are from a business [or do I mean ‘business school’?] background the answer might be obvious. Beyond that, my experience is that researchers can fall into the trap of assuming entrepreneurial thinking is all about business for business people. But, in my experience, it’s absolutely not! In fact, if researchers delegate this way of thinking to business people they miss the opportunity to enhance their abilities. So if you are a researcher, entrepreneurial thinking can help you see what you do in a slightly different way. Those new insights can make a real difference when you are thinking about and writing research bids from a range of different funders. Above all, a more entrepreneurial mind-set can transform how your research actually “makes a difference” beyond a specific academic area. Why delegate something so important?

With that definition of “entrepreneurial thinking” we can come back to that initial question. Is there a standard approach to stimulating that mindset that works for different audiences?  Three particular thoughts have emerged – context, comparisons and creativity.

Firstly, context.  I have delivered entrepreneurial mindset programmes to groups as small as 10 and as large as 100 participants. My audiences have also been very diverse in their backgrounds.  They range from 12 to 13 year-old pupils in an inner-city London comprehensive school to the finance team of a global technology PLC. In a more academic business school context, I have taught entrepreneurial thinking to a class of predominantly British Year-2 undergraduates through to international postgraduates and entrepreneurs building high growth firms.  Beyond business schools I have worked with PhD students in the environmental, biological sciences and social sciences and, earlier this year, a room of African scientists, professionals and entrepreneurs. A diverse range of contexts in anyone’s book.

Secondly, comparisons.  Your first impression might be that this diversity of audiences must bring many differences. They do, almost too many differences to mention here. The obvious ones include age, gender, ethnicity, nationality, location, education, academic discipline, profession (or lack of) and so on.  What may be less obvious is the similarities that apply across all these audiences. For example, I always find that everyone engages once they feel safe to do so and that the energy builds over the session towards groups presenting entrepreneurial ideas. Another similarity is that second time around is quicker and better. Participants leave feeling more confident about their own ability to behave entrepreneurially.

Thirdly, creativity.  We have all heard the talk of Artificial Intelligence (AI) emerging to replace knowledge-based jobs in much the same way that robotics can replace manual jobs. OK, there is no doubt that AI is an immensely important development BUT it occurs to me that creativity is still the domain of the human brain. This is the ability to develop solutions based on envisioning different futures. That’s at the core of entrepreneurial thinking.

So, perhaps ‘Plug & Play’ programmes for stimulating an entrepreneurial mindset are even more important than I first thought. And, delivering impact with such programmes? That’s certainly the whole point of the training within RECIRCULATE.  As part of GCRF’s Growing Research Capability call, RECIRCULATE is designed to “strengthen and broaden skills and expertise to address specific challenges of developing regions and countries”. Of course, in a project focussed on the circular water economy, much of that relates to technical skills and expertise. But we also recognise that to translate excellent research in to practice, and so to contribute to the SDGs, needs researchers with other skills too. That’s exactly where an entrepreneurial mindset becomes so important.

We need researchers with the mindset to be open to different ways of thinking, not just of how they translate their research but even of thinking about applying for funding or communicating their results.  Or, dare I say it, researchers who are open to breaking the mould of some traditional ways of working? That comes back to creativity being at the heart of entrepreneurial thinking. Whether they are researchers in the UK, Nigeria, Ghana or any of the countries, isn’t that exactly what we all need if we are to succeed in working together to help deliver the SDGs?

Encouraging Researchers to Think Outside the Box (Original post)

Professor Nigel Lockett is Professor of Entrepreneurship and Head of the Hunter Centre for Entrepreneurship at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow and was instrumental in the design and delivery of the Entrepreneurship and Innovation work package in the RECIRCULATE project. Nigel is a senior academic, experienced manager, serial entrepreneur and community leader who is passionate about the positive role that entrepreneurship can play in addressing global challenges. In 2015, Nigel was awarded the prestigious National Teaching Fellowship for his outstanding contribution to enterprise in higher education.

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