Will/won’t vs. can/can’t

Having worked in the entrepreneurial development environment for more than a decade, I have noticed a stark difference between successful and unsuccessful entrepreneurs in terms of their attitudes towards problems that present themselves.

In my view, unsuccessful entrepreneurs work from a paradigm of “things that can or can’t be done” and “problems that can or can’t be fixed”. In other words, they have a binary view of whether or not any given problem can be resolved. Coming from this paradigm, when a problem appears, it is given a cursory examination, and the resulting attitude is either “it can be solved” or “it can’t be solved”.

Let’s take a hypothetical example. Bob’s factory produces 100 widgets per day. An old customer calls with an urgent request: she has to have 1 000 widgets by the next day for a major project. Working from a “can/can’t” paradigm, Bob quickly sees that he will only be able to produce 200 widgets by then, and so he can’t fulfil the order. He regretfully tells his customer that he can’t do it, and she will have to look for another supplier. In doing so, he not only loses the order, but also any reputation for reliability that he may have had.

Successful entrepreneurs also have a binary approach to problems, but this approach operates in a different direction. Their view is that any given problem “will be fixed” or “won’t be fixed”. By viewing a problem in this light, successful entrepreneurs beg the question of “how will it be fixed?” This question is at the heart of entrepreneurial thinking.

Let’s go back to our example. Bob, being a true entrepreneur, immediately tells his customer, “You will have 1 000 widgets by tomorrow,” and then sets out to figure out how he is going to fill the order. He has 200 widgets in stock, produced for another customer who is only expecting delivery next week. He calls in temporary staff to increase production and offers overtime pay to ensure that he can continue production through the night, meaning he can produce 500 widgets by the end of the next day.

He even manages to source another 300 widgets anonymously from his competitors, which means he will be able to fulfil his customer’s order. The customer is delighted, and is happy to pay the premium that Bob adds to his usual price due to the urgency of the order.

The problem with the “can/can’t” paradigm is that it short-circuits the kind of creative thinking in this example, which is what lies behind successful entrepreneurship.

At Raizcorp, we work with a definition of entrepreneurship that describes five elements that are required for entrepreneurship to precipitate. One of these elements is that “entrepreneurs must have belief in their ability to muster resources.”

The words in the title of this element are carefully chosen. It is not an entrepreneur’s “ability to muster resources;” rather, it is their belief in their ability to do so that is important. This belief is reflected in the “will/won’t” paradigm of approaching problems.

The distinction can be summed up as follows: unsuccessful entrepreneurs will only take a risk if they have the resources required to capitalise on an opportunity. On the other hand, successful entrepreneurs will take that risk if they believe they can muster the resources required. This means that, at the time the opportunity presents itself, the resources do not necessarily need to be in place; just the entrepreneur’s firmly held belief that they can be sourced.

An entrepreneur’s self-belief is central to his/her success. However, operating from a paradigm of “can/can’t” artificially limits entrepreneurial thinking, and does not allow entrepreneurs to explore the boundless opportunities that a healthy belief in their own abilities as entrepreneurs can bring them.