Commitment and the Entrepreneurial Leap

Entrepreneurship requires commitment to overcome the many challenges involved in bringing a vision to reality. Blind commitment, on the other hand, guarantees that early mistakes will balloon into catastrophes; that warning signs will be ignored; and the best opportunities to pivot will be missed. When making the leap, managing your commitment is like walking a ridge where stumbles toward either side can bring disaster. 

Commitment means devoting your time, energy, and money to your cause, and it means getting others to commit their own time, effort and money to that same cause. 

The innovation literature is filled with stories of established companies that saw opportunities and developed new technologies but failed to commit.  They never made the leap. General Electric had an implantable pacemaker developed and working, but hesitated long enough to allow Medtronic to develop and launch their own product, and rapidly own the market. Sony’s infighting and doubts created the opportunity for Apple to introduce a digital version of the walkman, taking that market. Many more internal ideas and projects get stifled and abandoned long before they even have a chance to be counted among the dead.

The social psychologist Karl Weick once observed that, in the challenge of taking on large-scale projects, people often define the task in ways that “overwhelm their ability to do anything about them.” In other words, the sheer scale and scope of the challenge exceeds their ability to comprehend all that is required, and raises their arousal to dysfunctional levels. The result: in the face of a great opportunities, people freeze or, more likely, find ways to act that demonstrate competence but avoid commitment.

To make matters worse, a lack of commitment is contagious. If you lack commitment, you breed the same hesitancy in everyone who works with you on this new venture, and in your potential customers, suppliers, and investors. Lyndon Johnson, who as President drove more civil rights legislation through congress then ever before or since, was asked how he managed to get the support of so many in congress: “Nothing convinces like conviction,” he said. Human nature reads other people well—we can sense a lack of commitment and respond accordingly. As Henry Ford once famously said, “Whether you believe you can do a thing or not, you are right.”

On the other hand, blind commitment can be equally fatal to a new venture. Entrepreneurs too often try to use their own commitment as proof to others of the worth of their ideas. Many take a “burn your ships” strategy, believing that if they throw themselves wholly into a venture, with no way out but victory, they will succeed.

Commitment is not enough to succeed. It too often hides mistaken assumptions, contradictory evidence, and other feedback that would reveal, if not fatal flaws, certainly that the venture is heading in the wrong direction. In the critical early moments of a new venture, when you’re deciding whether to make the leap or not, commitment is not the objective—it’s one potential outcome.

Indeed, the need to appear committed in your own eyes and in the eyes of others—can be the worst way to start a new venture. Psychologists call this “escalating commitment to a failing course of action,” and it comes about anytime we find ourselves taking public and effortful actions that reflect a decision on our part. The more time we spend working on a particular venture, and publicly demonstrating our commitment to a chosen course action, the more difficult it gets to change our own way thinking. 

The weight of our own past actions make it increasingly difficult to change course when new information suggests our original assumptions were wrong, or that better opportunities exist elsewhere. Worse, studies have shown that, the more we have committed to a course of action, the less we will notice (let alone pursue) new information.  Regardless, it turns out, whether that information will support our position or undermines it. This is why Ralph Waldo Emerson warns us that a “foolish consistency [that] is the hobgoblin of little minds.” 

Many small revolutions

Whether it's at the individual level, the team, the organization, or the nation, the wrong approach to commitment lies at the heart of many catastrophic failures—and countless more missed opportunities.

Entrepreneurs struggle mightily with the decision of whether to make the leap or not. The belief that only a bold leap will demonstrate your belief in the idea (and thus make it a reality) creates one trap—too much commitment. This results in spending every available minute building the product, the website, or the business plan—engaging in public and effortful activities designed to grow an idea into a business in one great leap. On the other hand, refusing to leap until all the pieces are in place, all the evidence has been gathered, and the decision thought through creates the other trap—too little commitment.

In established companies, similar traps lie around every corner, in every meeting, and every revenue forecast and project schedule. The more time you spend selling your idea, putting to paper the promises of what your new venture can be—long before you have begun actually working on it—the harder it becomes to change course as you move forward and learn from your mistakes. Yet nurturing your idea in the dark, away from the criticisms of colleagues and out of the hands of potential customers, can easily mask a lack of commitment that slowly dissipates the energy and fritters away the opportunity.

So what’s the answer? When too much commitment and too little can both kill a venture’s success, what’s Goldilocks to do?

The approach we advocate, and have supported with discrete activities and tools, builds on the premise that, before there is even a startup, the first job is to start, and to start wisely. In other words, the first job is to prove to yourself and to others that this new venture is worth your commitment. We’ll talk more about the process of “proving” the worth of your own and others’s investments. For now, let’s provide some psychological grounding and a practical approach to navigating the ridge of commitment.  

This proof comes not by leaping without looking, but by objectively testing the waters, recognizing and objectively reducing the uncertainties, and only then pursuing the new venture with a vengeance.

That means committing not to taking on the building of an entire venture but, instead, committing to taking on and completing the next experiment—the next revolution in the think/do cycle. 

This approach runs counter to what most organizations do—approve and fund an entire development project before it’s had the opportunity to test any assumptions and develop a proven direction. And it’s counter to most attitudes in early startups—the desire to focus directly and immediately on building product. Instead, it means committing wholly to taking small steps, learning from them, and moving forward again. 

Weick calls this a strategy of “small wins,” in which problems are broken down into smaller steps that are both small enough to be comprehensible, yet large or risky enough to still arouse energy and accomplishment. This is not a matter of good project management—the right small steps that prepare you to make the leap are not smaller pieces of the larger project. In fact, to those who have already mentally and emotionally committed to the new venture, these next steps often feel like distractions.  

I’ll talk about these steps next.