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Case Study 161
Should a job
candidate divulge
that she’s pregnant?

Analyzing our
obsession with

LIFE’s Work 172
Prolific author
James Patterson on
problem solving and

Managing Your Professional Growth

Managing Yourself

New Project?
Don’t Analyze—Act
Entrepreneurs take small, quick steps to get
initiatives off the ground. You can do the same
in your organization. by Leonard A. Schlesinger,
Charles F. Kiefer, and Paul B. Brown
154 Harvard Business Review March 2012

Illustration: tomasz walenta


e all know how new projects
happen in a predictable world:
A team is assembled, a market
analyzed, a forecast created, and a business plan written. Resources are then gathered, and the plan is set in motion.
But how do you launch new projects in
an unpredictable environment? What’s the
best way to do it in an age when the proliferation of data and opinion makes truly decisive analysis impossible; when faraway events have immediate, unexpected impact; and when economic malaise has

made companies reluctant to take big bets
on unproven ideas?
Take a page from the playbook of those
who are experts in navigating extreme
uncertainty while minimizing risk: serial
We and others in the academic and
consulting communities have spent years
studying these leaders and the logic they
use to create new products, services,
and business models in situations where
the old methods of analyzing, forecasting, modeling, planning, and allocating don’t work.
Some of the most surprising research
comes from Saras D. Sarasvathy, an associate professor of business administration at the University of Virginia’s Darden School

of Business, whose in-depth study of 27
serial entrepreneurs revealed a number
of common behaviors. Instead of starting
with a predetermined goal, these entrepreneurs allow opportunities to emerge; instead of focusing on optimal returns,
they spend more time considering their
acceptable loss; and instead of searching
for perfect solutions, they look for goodenough ones.
The point is that successful entrepreneurs don’t just “think different.” They translate that thinking into immediate action, often eschewing or ignoring analysis. Rather than predict the future, they try

to create it. We have seen this firsthand
in clients and former students who have
launched businesses in a variety of industries. And look at Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz: Coffee sales had been steadily
declining for two decades before he came
up with the café concept that would grow
into a multibillion-dollar business.
This logic shouldn’t be limited to
entrepreneurs working outside the bounds
of traditional organizations. (After all,
Schultz first tested his café idea when
Starbucks was a small retailer of coffee
beans, teas, and spices, and he was its
director of marketing.) We believe that
any manager can—and should—follow
the same process when confronting the
unknown, because it is an extremely lowrisk way to launch new projects. It also involves only a few simple steps:
Act: Take a smart step toward a goal.
Learn: Evaluate the evidence you’ve
Build: Repeat steps 1 and 2 until you
accomplish your goal, realize you can’t, or
opt to change direction on the basis of new
Reading that list, you might think, This
is common sense. And it is. Any two-yearold understands the concept of learning through action. So do artists and scientists.
Even if you don’t know exactly where
you’re going, you get started. You make
right turns and wrong turns, learning
more about what the right direction is
as you go. You’re not flying blind; you’re

moving forward carefully, eyes wide open.
You’re alert to any looming danger—or
We acknowledge that action before
analysis, learning instead of predicting,
can be, well, unpredictable—and messy.
And we concede that it’s antithetical to the
way most organizations work. However, in
the long term, taking lots of small steps actually reduces risk, which makes such an approach ideal for tackling challenges and
getting fledgling initiatives off the ground,
particularly in today’s skittish corporate
environment. And such innovation is critically important not only for companies that want to stay competitive but also for
enterprising employees who want to feel
fulfilled in their jobs.

First Steps

Research shows that entrepreneurs
forecast, plan, and model only when they

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