Welcome back to the third in the ‘five challenges’ podcast series. I’m Katherine Parsons, doctoral researcher at Cardiff Business School (text version)
In each episode of this podcast series Alacrity Foundation’s CEO, Dr. Wil Williams has been setting a challenge arising from my 2018/2019 research project with 10 participants of the Alacrity Programme in which I explored identity negotiation during the process of becoming an entrepreneur.
The first challenge Wil posed in episode 1 related to how nascent entrepreneurs can manage their multiple selves and balance shifting identities, an issue especially pertinent in today’s current pandemic context in which many of us have been simultaneously living, working and maybe even home-schooling our children from home. And in the last podcast episode, Wil set a challenge with regard to how a start-up development programme such as Alacrity UK can identify and support their participants through ‘dysfunctional’ identity conflict – identity conflict so severe that it has substantial negative effects on well-being and performance and ‘come out the other side’?
Wil’s third challenge discussed in today’s episode, relates to the notion of ‘optimal distinctiveness’ – a classic social identity framework often featured within entrepreneurship studies (Shepherd and Haynie, 2009; McKnight and Zietsma, 2018) that suggests that an entrepreneur strives for a balance to be struck between feeling a need to belong and a need to feel distinct.
Wil asks; how can distinctiveness be embraced whilst maximising efficiency in start-up development programmes?
Brewer (1991) developed Optimal Distinctiveness Theory (ODT) as a theoretical framework through which to understand how individuals respond to their social groups around them as dictated by two opposing needs; one for “assimilation and inclusion” and the other for “differentiation” from that group. Thus, suggesting there is a balance to be struck in achieving the optimal level of distinctiveness such that one feels they are distinct at the same time as belonging to their social group.
The findings of my 2018/2019 study found support for Brewer’s theory with all participants making reference to both wanting to set themselves apart as distinct as well as feeling that they belonged to a community, summed up by one participant as; “I belong because I am different”.
The need to be distinct grew in salience throughout the programme, suggesting that this was something of increasing importance to the participants as they progressed throughout the entrepreneurial process. The focal point of the comparisons, however, were diverse with those with previous work experience comparing themselves to ‘corporates’ or with sub-groups of their peers on the programme who also had previous work experience. For others, groups of friends back home were the focal point of comparison based on their relative achievements at a similar life-stage. There was also diversity in the communities that the nascent entrepreneurs wanted to feel they belonged to with these ranging from the entrepreneur community generally or more specifically, the social entrepreneur community, or specific industries with the ‘tech’ industry naturally given highest salience given this is the industry the Alacrity programme is located within.
Entrepreneurship scholars (Shepherd and Patzelt, 2018) suggest however that rather than trading one off against the other, both distinctiveness and belonging can be achieved simultaneously through effective identity management strategies. Check out my blog on the Alacrity blogsite for further detail on effective identity management strategies.
Wil’s challenge, however, comes from recognising this plight for ‘optimal distinctiveness’ experienced by nascent entrepreneurs and wanting to develop opportunities on the Alacrity programme for them to feel both a sense of belonging (to the cohort/ programme/ portfolio network or wider entrepreneurial or industry community) at the same time as embracing the participants’ quest to be distinct from others. All the while ensuring this can be achieved whilst maximising efficiency in start-up development programmes such as Alacrity UK.
A balance needs to be struck in allowing the nascent entrepreneurs to cut their own paths, develop their own style and unique personal ‘brand’ at the same time as ensuring conformance with the established standards and procedures of start-up development programmes such as Alacrity UK which are essential to the development of successful, sustainable new businesses. For example, advocating product discipline, following the tried and tested methodologies promoted by the programme. All of which have been developed through years of experience and lessons learned along the way regarding how best to develop new products and start-up companies. In short, the Alacrity programme requires that participants follow the tried and tested model of the programme – demand-led projects, orchestrated start-up team composition and equity structure whilst all the time acknowledging and embracing individuality and distinctiveness in style or perspective.
It is a delicate balance and one that does not come without its own challenges at times. Often nascent entrepreneurs can join start-up development programmes such as Alacrity bursting with energy and ideas, eager to learn and benefit from all of the experience and expertise provided by the programme to then only become frustrated later-on in the process as they are asked to learn the discipline and process of product ideation and development advocated by the programme and follow the prescribed methodologies and procedures in place. For example, abiding by the underlying principles of the programme: “demand-driven products, globally scalable businesses” (Williams, 2020).
Wil’s challenge then is in how a balance, just like with optimal distinctiveness can be struck between embracing and harnessing the participant’s distinctiveness – their style, approach and perspective at the same time as maintaining a sense of consistency and efficiency that comes from approaching product and start-up development from a tried and tested model and methodology.
At least part of this comes from managing expectations right from the offset.
Some of the findings and feedback from my research project provided insight into elements that the participants found particularly frustrating or challenging during the programme, leading, in some cases to dysfunctional identity conflict as discussed in the previous podcast episode. For example, a number or participants in the 2018/2019 cohort expressed frustration and even exasperation at not having the freedom to be able to pursue their own ‘passion projects’, stating that they spent any spare time working on these on the side. In such cases, these participant faced a dilemma as they progressed throughout the programme and the start-up company they were in the process of co-creating became more of a reality, naturally taking up more and more of their time, squeezing any free time they did have to work on their passion projects to nil. At this juncture, the participants had to make a decision whether to a) put their passion project on the ‘back-burner’ whilst they committed their full time and efforts to the current business venture or b) whether actually they found their desire to work on their passion project or to have full control over their business was more important and they chose to walk away from the opportunity to compete for equity in the business they developed on the programme.
The nature of the demand-driven model had always been made clear to the participants, right from the offset as had the equity structure and structure of the programme. However, the heady prospects of joining a programme that supplies you with a project alongside the team and network to develop it into a new start-up business can perhaps leave nascent entrepreneurs blinded to the reality of the decisions they need to confront and make as they consider this route into entrepreneurship.
What I have truly loved most about my research collaboration with Alacrity UK is not only their genuine interest and enthusiasm to participate in the research project but their hunger to learn from the findings and look for the practical implications as to how the research can inform their current and future practice for the better. This is every researcher’s dream, to conduct research that is relevant and recognised as important and that it bear fruit in terms of impact within the field at a practitioner and societal level.
As a result of the findings, the Alacrity Foundation leadership team have made a number of adjustments to how the structure and make-up of the programme is communicated and in some areas, designed, are more aware of the identity conflict experienced by nascent entrepreneurs during the entrepreneurial process and have increased the opportunities for regular mentoring and one to one sessions throughout the programme so as to enable more time to reflect on issues of ‘self’. You can read more about Alacrity’s response to the research project and the change they have made here.
In addition, further opportunities might be sought to ensure that future potential participants are absolutely clear of the specific nature of start-up development programmes with regards to the project, team and equity structures and approaches right from the recruitment stage. Communication of these clear messages should be reinforced throughout the duration of the programme also with open and honest forums readily available within which participants can share their frustrations and dilemmas, working through tensions and conflicts together for mutual benefit.
All of which will help ensure that participants come in to start-up development programmes such as Alacrity UK knowing, unequivocally, what is expected from them as regards the methods and approaches they are expected to adopt and standards and procedures they are expected to follow. Whilst being confident that they can bring their own style, character and unique perspective to the programme and the companies they create and that their feedback and lessons learned along the way will be encouraged, listened to and thoughtfully considered with relation to future improvements. Open dialogue alongside providing regular opportunities to explore and vent frustrations and struggles make for a healthier workplace in which uniqueness and distinctiveness can be embraced at the same time as bringing people together, united to learn from the established methodologies and practices in place so that the most successful and sustainable businesses can be created through the programme.
So, to summarise, the theory and practice tell us the same thing – distinctiveness and belonging are of equal importance to those on the journey towards becoming an entrepreneur. Alacrity UK recognise this and the balance that needs to be struck in enabling nascent entrepreneurs to ‘be their self’ at the same time as ensuring tried and tested models of best practice are adhered to SO THAT… the most successful and sustainable businesses can be built during such programmes and survive in the ‘real world’.
Thank you for joining me today. Please do join me next time for the penultimate in this ‘five challenges’ podcast series where I will be addressing Wil’s fourth challenge around values-based forms of rationality in entrepreneurial sense-making. See you next time.
Brewer. M. 1991. The social self: On being the same and different at the same time. Personality and social psychology bulletin. 17 (5). pp: 475–482
McKnight. B and Zeitsma. C. 2018. Finding the threshold: A configurational approach to optimal distinctiveness. Journal of business venturing. 33 (4). doi.org/10.1016/j.jbusvent.2018.03.004
Shepherd. D and Haynie. M. 2009. Birds of a feather don’t always flock together: Identity management in entrepreneurship. Journal of business venturing. 2(4). doi.org/10.1016/j.jbusvent.2007.10.005
Shepherd. D and Patzelt. H. 2018. Entrepreneurial identity in Entrepreneurial cognition. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan. pp:137-200. doi.org/10.1007/978-3
Williams. W. 2020. Response to MSc Research Findings from Katherine Parsons. Available at: https://www.alacrityfoundation.co.uk/2020/07/10/response-to-msc-research-findings-from-katherine-parsons/. Accessed: 20/07/20