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Launching New Projects in Unpredictable Environments

April 13, 2012 by Deborah Gilburg

In a recent article in Harvard Business Review entitled “New Project? Don’t Analyze—Act,” authors Leonard Schlesinger, Charles Keifer & Paul Brown summarize surprising new insights from research on serial entrepreneurs and how they initiate new, innovative projects in a climate of extreme uncertainty while minimizing risks.

We are spending more and more time helping groups learn to experiment with new ways of doing things in order to find the solutions that work, and I was struck at how this was precisely how serial entrepreneurs thought.

The following summary offers an excellent perspective for leaders and influencers seeking to “start something new” within the current climate of uncertainty.


Adapted from “New Project? Don’t Analyze—Act,” by L. Schlesinger, C. Kiefer & P. Brown; Harvard Business Review, March 2012

Traditional process for new projects in a predictable world:

  • Analyze
  • Predict/Forecast
  • Plan/Model
  • Implement

Different thinking of serial entrepreneurs in an unpredictable world:

  • Act —before analysis,; quick, small, inexpensive steps
  • Learn —instead of predicting
  • Build —scale up from what works

Entrepreneurial Rules of Thumb

  1. Use the means at hand: use the people you know, the budget you have
  2. Stay within your acceptable loss: at each step determine how much you can afford to loose if this step should fail? Include dedicated time and reputation as “costs.” Whatever is at risk could be safely lost.
  3. Secure only the commitment you need for the next step: four types of people; those who want your project to happen, those who will help make your project happen, those who will let it happen, and those who will keep it from happening. Don’t waste your time getting buy in from last two categories. Ask: what is the least amount of commitment I need to act? Go for just enough freedom within the boundaries of your organization.
  4. Bring along only volunteers: look for volunteers only from the first two groups identified above. You can’t compel innovation, only invite it. Share your passion and desire, act honestly, be transparent about the plan as well as good and bad news, demonstrate willingness to collaborate by offering real work to do.
  5. Link first steps to a broader organizational imperative: produce early results, demonstrate how first steps can make a difference, and build from there. If the risks are too high, scale back to a smaller step.
  6. Manage expectations: don’t over promise! These are just exploratory steps to generate evidence that will inform the next step.
  7. Move quickly in the face of positive results: and embrace even negative results as information to improve idea or as a means of pointing to a new opportunity all together before resources are wasted.
  8. Understand when and how to use prediction: forecast, plan and model where you can, using the evidence created to inform next steps. Augment traditional process rather than replace it
  9. Know when to fold ‘em: get clear on when to cut your losses and walk away. There is always another day!