Why more entrepreneurs need to adopt a “beginner’s mind”

Updated on 11 November 2016

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Why more entrepreneurs need to adopt
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Entrepreneurs are expected to have an answer for everything – but what if not having an answer was the key to giving your business the competitive edge?

Adopting what Klara Michal, Chief Learning Officer at African Management Initiative (AMI) calls a “beginner’s mind,” can actually help entrepreneurs develop innovative ideas which if they had remained stuck on their preconceived ideas, they might never come up with.

AMI is an initiative that operates across Africa, helping businesses build a capable and productive workforce.

The importance of innovation within a businesses cannot be overstated, especially in this era of disruption. Quite simply, businesses that fail to innovate are disrupted. Examples of this are readily available, from the American DVD and video rental company, Blockbuster which was forced to file for bankruptcy after the streaming service Netflix disrupted its model, to Blackberry which was driven out of the cell phone market by Apple’s iPhone after failing to remain innovative.

A “beginner’s mind” vs “expert’s mind”

Most adults, because of their past experiences are more prone to tapping into their “expert’s mind” and quickly assuming they already have the answer before they even begin, says Michal, rather than approaching problems with a fresh perspective.

“A beginner’s mind is a mind that is open to new ideas and learning new things. The concept, which comes from Buddhist Zen philosophy, looks at how children approach new situations and concepts – without judgment or preconceived notions, simply ready to learn.

“The idea is that adults – who often get stuck in their ways and avoid trying new things also need to cultivate a “beginner’s mind” when faced with new challenges in order to continue learning, growing and handling change,” adds Michal.

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few”

Why a “beginner’s mind” is useful

There are real benefits that can be derived from adopting a “beginner’s mind”, the biggest of which could be the ability to constantly come up with new ideas, such as finding quicker, cheaper and more efficient ways of operating, and which is at the heart of innovation.

“Because experts feel they know how to think about problems and how to do certain things, that’s what they then do whenever faced with a problem or situation – unfortunately, this can lead to everything always being done a certain way and a lack of innovation,” says Michal.

Having an “expert mind” can also be responsible for some business owners choosing to ignore important changes in technology or even continuing business practices that no longer serve their business.

Shunryu Suzuki, author and Soto Zen monk makes the connection between the “beginner’s mind” and innovation in his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind saying: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few”.

An additional benefit to approaching business with an open mind is that it can help entrepreneurs keep up with the rapidly changing business environment, says Michal.

“Given that entrepreneurs are constantly dealing with change and growth, a beginner’s mind also helps put them in an open and welcoming frame of mind when facing these challenges, which can help make it feel more manageable and exciting,” says Michal.

“New employees also aren’t influenced by any history or past experience the company has had, so they’re willing to try new things and revisit old ideas without prejudice”

Not just for the entrepreneur

Taking on employees with no experience is yet another way that business owners can benefit from the beginner’s mindset, says Michal.

Because new team members have no prior experience undertaking a task, they are more likely to question how a task is performed or even find better ways to get it done.

Michal says when these employees are given the freedom to challenge the order of things and suggest new approaches, they could bring the business much needed scrutiny and change.

“New employees often bring new ideas and different ways of doing things that they will have seen elsewhere and which can be very valuable for the business. Because they don’t know your business fully, they’re also more willing to ask questions and point out when things don’t work or make sense, thus helping identify problem areas you may not even be aware of,” says Michal.

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