The balance between passion and process

For an entrepreneur to be successful he or she needs to find the right balance between passion and process. This is perhaps even truer for social entrepreneurs and social innovators who are fighting for a good cause. This lesson comes to mind now that I am once again involved in a “startup” of sorts.

Seven weeks ago I joined MaRS as director of the MaRS Solutions Lab. I moved from Amsterdam to take up this role and to help Canada tackle some of its most complex social challenges, which is the Lab’s mission.

It’s great to be a part of MaRS, especially because I have that good-old startup feeling again and I’m loving it. So far, the Solutions Lab consists of just me, two secondments and a part-time intern—a small team with big ambitions! Our first challenges? The prevention of chronic disease and youth unemployment. After the summer, we’ll tell you more about how you can get involved.

This is not my first startup. In the Netherlands in 1999, back in the early days of the Internet, I started my own change lab straight out of university. Together with a fellow student I sat in a typical Amsterdam bar (no, not that kind) and watched  society transforming into a knowledge society around us. I had read books about it, from Manuel Castells to Alvin Toffler, and from Nicholas Negroponte to Peter Drucker. However, we were amazed to see that this transformation was not reflected in public policy whatsoever.

So, we started our own think-tank, which soon became more like a change lab (although the term did not exist back then). Neither did social innovation. We worked on building a stronger knowledge society by trying to create change in areas such as education, intellectual property law, digital media literacy, public services and broadband. When I left in 2011, I looked back to a team of 16 committed people and a large network of change agents in different sectors all working on that cause.

Over the years, I have seen, spoken to and coached many entrepreneurs and social innovators. Watching them and myself, I began to recognize some patterns about what defines success. Among others, I saw two main types of people, each using a distinct strategy for success.

Passionate entrepreneurs

The first type of person is the passionate entrepreneur (or the passionate social innovator). These people are deeply committed to a cause. They are out to change the world and never take no for an answer. They have a tremendous amount of energy and keep going like there is no tomorrow. They work late nights, they follow every opportunity that comes around and they’re able to talk only about their product in every conversation they have.

This strategy is stimulating and even addictive, but it’s not very good for your health—or for your relationships, for that matter. It certainly is not the smartest or most effective strategy, but this strategy provides the spark that every new organization needs to convince clients and investors to go along with them. It is the strategy that most young entrepreneurs use, myself included. And let’s be honest, without such passion, who would be crazy enough to start their own venture?

With social innovators there is often a personal reason behind a venture. These people are activists who started their own organizations because of something that happened in their lives. Their stories are often deeply touching and instantly win respect—and rightfully so. But if passion is your only strategy, it can also become your enemy as you must always keep fighting—sometimes like Don Quixote, but hopefully more effectively—and thinking more about your process and how to get things done. In a worst-case scenario, these passionate types end up being disillusioned, frustrated or even completely burnt out. I, personally, hit rock bottom in 2004.

Process-focused entrepreneurs

The second type of person is the process-focused entrepreneur (or the process-focused social innovator), the strategic master who carefully chooses options on the basis of thorough research and preparation. These people adhere closely to the models, the plans and the numbers, and endlessly work to improve their analysis. They like the game more than the content. These people are also cool political strategists who, like a true Houdini, love to develop smart solutions for the most complex problems. They are often right, but you you find yourself asking: Do I want to work with these people?

Despite a brilliant strategy or business case, you are not necessarily convinced to buy, invest or participate in their ventures as you’re not sure what is really driving them. You keep looking to see if there is something more—something, anything that shows that these people are really putting their hearts into it.

In social innovation, this type of person puts the process first. Results are  secondary. What counts is that everyone is engaged, respected and happy. Organizing anything collaborative energizes these people. They would rather facilitate than take a stand.

Don’t get me wrong, these are important qualities. I love to facilitate and more than anything I get energized by a good workshop where people share and develop new ideas. I can get caught up in it myself. But at the end of the day, you need to have a process to get something done, to arrive somewhere and to get the result you aimed for. The process is never just for the sake of convening or to have a nice day.

Now, both of these archetypes are extremes, but look around and you might recognize them. In most successful teams both types of people are represented in some way, and they should be. Once in a while, I meet entrepreneurs and social innovators who have discovered how to strike the right balance between passion and process. They are the really successful ones, like David Hughes, who I saw at a conference earlier this month. David is presently the president and CEO of Pathways to Education. Before that he was the CEO of Habitat for Humanity Canada and he also worked with SOS Children’s Villages Canada. Full of passion, but focused on creating impact, he mesmerized the audience. That is what entrepreneurship and social innovation is about.

This made me think again about my own balance. I have been developing the business plan for the MaRS Solutions Lab, strategizing and designing our theory of change. There is danger in becoming too process oriented—especially since I am leading a change lab, where organizing the innovation process is a core competency.

So where is my passion? Why did I come to MaRS? Luckily, I did not need to search for long. I am still deeply fascinated with our transition to a knowledge society, including the enormous and complex challenges it brings, as well as all of the new opportunities. I am interested in the answers we can and must find to create better lives for future generations—because getting this transition right will be our generation’s legacy.

It became even clearer the other night as I was reading bedtime stories to my two boys, who are four and six, through FaceTime, because they are still back in Amsterdam. When we finished our call and hung up, a few minutes later my youngest called me back.

“Daddy, I love you and I really miss you,” he uttered with a small, sad voice.

“Daddy loves you too, my boy,” I responded.

We hung up, and I cried. It’s for them—that is why I do this.