On Pizza and Deadlines: Saras Sarasvathy Humanizes the Effectuation Process

When Saras Sarasvathy tells a story, the room goes pin-drop silent.  As she weaves her tale with big, captivating words and movements, she engages each listener to lean in a little closer, anticipating each new word until the bitter end.  The Darden professor and leading scholar (known worldwide for her work on the underlying foundation of high-performance entrepreneurship and her development of the effectuation school of thought) never leaves you with a disappointing ending – her stories frequently conclude with a witty joke, a touching moment, or an astute insight (or if you’re lucky, all of the above).  Undoubtedly, she understands humans and the way they tick.

2017 at the iLab has been boldly deemed the “Year of Effectuation,” a nod to the very framework that Saras developed, and the incubator’s programming reflects this focus and common language at every step.  But the biggest surprise thus far in the summer’s early weeks is the emphasis – echoed in all of last week’s presentations, from Evan Edwards to Saras herself – on humans and how integral they are to the process of creating and building any new venture.  

The story goes…get four “average” people in a room, give them a problem to solve, and supply them with pizza and a deadline, and they’ll come up with equally innovative – and more numerous – solutions to that problem than any creative genius could generate.  It’s a liberating idea, that “ordinary” people can make magic by working together, and it underscores the message Saras worked to impart on the cohort over the course of her workshop: that while the effectuation framework serves as a crucial skeleton for venture development, the people you involve along the way are going to be the beating heart of your business.  “But you do need that pizza and that deadline, by the way…” Saras said as she drew her anecdote to a close.  Noted – a bit of good fuel and a pinch of imposed discipline go a long way.

The implicit question reverberating around the room seemed to be something to the effect of: if it’s all about the people you bring on board – in her words, “it’s not the technology; it’s Steve Jobs” – then how can these ventures best seek out and take advantage of human moments and opportunities?  In true Darden professor fashion, Saras wasn’t about to simply hand them that answer, but she responded to this question with probing questions of her own, and she invited them to challenge and respond to one another’s queries as a collaborative team.  Soon enough, the room began buzzing with the energy of co-creation, and you could tell by the amused expression on her face that she clearly had this outcome in mind all along.  While the ensuing conversation produced many impactful takeaways, a few big ones have been distilled into the five ideas below.

5 Ways to Humanize Effectuation

  • See each person who provides feedback on your venture as someone who could potentially add value, and listen accordingly. The unexpected people and places are where a lot of value ultimately comes from.
  • Surround yourself with people who learn and experience the world differently than you do. They will serve as assets whom you could never replicate with a text book or website, and your business will benefit tremendously from these diverse perspectives.
  • The moment people give you advice, your job is to take that and turn it into some kind of commitment or form of skin in the game. When you give people emotional and psychological ownership in the venture, you get their buy-in in a deeper way.
  • Don’t let the perceived obligation of a quid-pro-quo relationship kill a conversation before it starts. Make the ask even if you don’t feel you have “something to offer.”  Together, you’ll discover how you might be able to help them in return.
  • “Talk like a human being” – rather than asking a new connection to be on your “board of advisors,” simply ask for their advice on something you’ve been contemplating, and they will become a de facto advisor.

 Fundamentally, according to Saras, “you can perfect your story or pitch…but the future does not actually exist until a couple people come together and make it happen.”  Fortunately for these ventures, the summer that lies ahead is the ultimate embodiment of the pizza/deadline environment.  They will have milestones to reach, they’ll have a finite stretch of time together, and word on the street is that they’ll frequently be fed (the verdict’s still out on whether pizza, in particular, will be involved).  Now’s the time to see what magic unfolds.