The Opportunity of Opportunities (…or why we call ourselves Fourth Quadrant Partners)

Entrepreneurs are in the opportunity business. They like nothing more than to find a problem no one else has been able to solve and to create a business by being the first one to solve it. They are usually not satisfied to solve a run-of-the-mill problem. They are looking for real opportunities to create a breakthrough…the next “killer app.” Where other people might see the status quo as an immovable object, they see it as a platform. From that perch, instead of seeing a hundred reasons why something won’t work, all they see are opportunities to make something different happen.

People aiming to create social change can benefit from more of this kind of entrepreneurial vision. Emergent Learning is, by definition, very opportunistic, in the sense that it asks you to very deliberately use your calendar and your to-do list to create opportunities to try something new. In that sense, Emergent Learning is entrepreneurial. It helps “social entrepreneurs” think outside of their current assumptions about what’s possible.

In Emergent Learning, one of the first questions we ask is this: What one challenge or problem, if you were able to tackle it to the ground, would make the biggest contribution to achieving your goals this year? And the next question we ask is this: What are the opportunities in your calendar where you could try out new solutions?

One of our big critiques of so many designed “learning” activities is that they have no connection to opportunities. They are out-of-step with what’s on people’s plates. In the world of Emergent Learning, no opportunities = no learning.

The research of Saras Sarasvathy about what makes entrepreneurs entrepreneurial points to four basic principles of entrepreneurship, which were described in Just Start (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012). In our own words, they are:

  1. Start with the means at hand. Don’t wait until the conditions are right (because they will never be right.)
  2. Calculate the acceptable loss. What will it take to play the game and how can risk be syndicated?
  3. Bring others along. Get good at sharing the goal in a way that moves people to support it.
  4. Build on what you find. Embrace everything that happens as another doorway to success. And look for abundant and rapid feedback to inform your next step as the work unfolds.

In Emergent Learning, the real opportunity of opportunities is that they start with the means at hand – stuff in your calendar that is going to happen anyhow, and create “affordable loss” opportunities to test ideas incrementally in rapid cycle practice fields that involve important partners and stakeholders.

Unlike entrepreneurs, large organizations have a pernicious tendency to teach people to think that a problem can’t be solved until the conditions are right; to look outside of themselves for solutions to complex problems– to shift the burden to a hero (“expert”) to come in and propose what are often big, often unnecessarily bureaucratic solutions.

What we have found is that if a group of people can begin to see that it might actually be possible to solve a big, “unsolvable” problem and they band together around a compelling goal, then, like the entrepreneur, they may suddenly find themselves standing on a platform and all they see from that point forward is opportunities to make that happen.

So why are we called Fourth Quadrant Partners? If you look at an Emergent Learning Table, you will see that the name of the fourth quadrant is “Opportunities.” That’s where good ideas get tested out… “where learning turns into results.”

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