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Avoiding Regret: the one thing missing from innovation, creativity and our love affair with entrepreneurship

September 5, 2018

 

Entrepreneurs face a major responsibility when they are creating a good or service.

 

Most people work in a company or organization but didn't create it. For them, they inherit and work to improve upon what was created by the founder(s), the entrepreneur(s). And think about this:  have you ever said something you regretted?  You spoke too quickly or were upset or excited and you said something that made you cringe later?  That is what can happen to entrepreneurs. They can create things that either they--or the world--regrets later on.

 

What an entrepreneur and her team create, as a culture and a product and an operation, will (hopefully) continue for years to come.  Most think a lot about the specific features, pricing and communication strategy, but what about the broader impacts on society?

 

Consider the case of famous American inventor Thomas Midgley who invented leaded gasoline (we later found out that lead is a neurotoxin especially dangerous for children) and Freon (we later learned that chlorofluorocarbons like Freon destroy the ozone layer).

 

During his time, Midgley was regarded as one of the most brilliant scientists of his day.  And indeed, he helped thousands, perhaps millions, of people get access to refrigeration and the automobile.  But like a Frankenstein story, his creations turned into environmental and human health monsters of the 20th century.  And his final creation later in life when suffering from a severe illness and disability, which was meant to help him out of bed, actually led to his own death (but I'll let you learn about that elsewhere).

 

One observer has said:

 

"Midgley displayed an absolutely uncanny instinct for doing what we now recognize as the wrong thing, and then for building those things into multimillion-dollar industries
that would take generations to dismantle."

 

It's easy to look back and say..."well, that was dumb." Or we might say..."but we understand the science now. Those were the dark ages."  But the challenge for the entrepreneur continues. Consider Jeff Bezos and the heat he is taking for how his distribution center workers are treated. Or take the humble K-Cup and the case of entrepreneur John Sylvan...

 

READ THIS article in The Atlantic about entrepreneur and K-Cup inventor John Sylvan. He deeply regrets--and more importantly for the point we are exploring here, he didn't foresee--the enormous waste that would result from his "innovation."  Why didn't he think about it?  Why didn't the investors, the lenders, his co-partners? And what about Green Mountain who purchased K-Cup.  The financial analysts, accountants and lawyers didn't calculate the social cost of the waste, the impact on brand and reputation as a risk to future cash flows?  

 

Image credit: Elephant Journal

 

Why have entrepreneurs not foreseen these problems in the past?  How can entrepreneurs make sure they are thinking carefully about unintended environmental and human health consequences of their creations?

 

How can they avoid regret?

Avoiding Regret with Action Through Inaction

Research on regret in the West seems to suggest that people feel more cognitive and emotional pain from inaction (what they didn't do), than action (what they did and later regretted).  This finding has caught like wild fire among motivational speakers, life coaches and entrepreneurship promoters of all kinds.  The message is to ACT NOW and LIVE THE LIFE OF YOUR DREAMS, etc.  While this finding may have some validity, I question such convenient half-truths that exalt individual self-interest and dismiss the needs of family, the future, community and society.

 

After all, only children and narcissists act without regard for others. It is a sign of maturity to extend one's sense of self and responsibility to ever widening circles. That is, an adult pauses before taking action, before the act of creation. This moment of pause, of inaction allows one time to assess intended and unintended consequences, to question motives and to expose blind spots.

 

So we must teach both action (idea generation, business model creation) and inaction (reflection, implicit bias-analysis, social and ecological impact analysis).  Sylvan could have paused and asked around. It wouldn't have taken long for someone to point out the garbage bomb he was about to drop on the world.  

 

I hope during the expansion of entrepreneurship programs around the country and the world, there are modules and lessons on responsible creativity and ethical innovation that feature stories of regret and of great moral courage and enduring success--not just for the entrepreneur but the world.

 

When we say something we regret, we can "take it back". But when an entrepreneur creates something we all regret, it is much more difficult to take it back. 

 

Far better to ask ourselves:  what unintended outcomes might result from this product/service that we would regret later?  

 

And then make it regret-proof from the beginning.