The holidays are a great time to plunge into one of those books that you have wanted to read all year, and I took full advantage of it during the holiday season just past.

One of my all-time favorite books is "Washington — The Indispensable Man," by James T. Flexner. The author addresses the life of George Washington, taking the reader through his early years, the Revolutionary War, the founding of the country, his presidency and his final years. One could take away many lessons from Washington's life and accomplishments, but I would like to focus on the "entrepreneurial" side of this great man.

Washington had very little formal education; he "hardly went beyond what we should consider the elementary grades." At 17, he began making his own living. He had little military training, no political science education and no coursework in leadership. What he was really good at was adapting himself to the opportunity and responding correctly within the context of the environment.

His earliest attempts as a military leader saw some success, but were mostly what we would consider defeats. It was not until he realized what his organizational strengths were, what he and his men were good at and what they could do to differentiate themselves in battle that he saw success during the war.

William Sahlman of Harvard University cites four components that are important in recognizing and analyzing opportunity in any entrepreneurial process or venture:

• People — who is performing the services or providing the resources, do the people have the right experience, skills and attitudes;

• Opportunity — any activity that requires investment of resources in hopes of future returns, does it make sense;

• External context — factors that might affect the outcome of the opportunity generally outside of the direct control of management;

• Deal — relationships between the entity and resource providers.

The challenge is then to assess the "fit" of the above components to determine the potential for success. As an entrepreneur, you may have a promising opportunity, but lack the team to win in the market.

Most businesses will evolve over time. Few new enterprises have it right on day one. The company must adapt to changing conditions, new information, competitors, economic conditions, etc. The challenge is to determine if the current deficiencies can be overcome or fixed. Sahlman says, "The role of management is to continuously adapt a business to improve the degree of fit: doing so does not guarantee success, but it does increase the odds."

Let's take a quick look at Washington's "entrepreneurial" venture. His people were not well trained soldiers, but they were dedicated and they knew the geography. The opportunity made sense; they were fighting for freedom and for their lives. Many factors (external context) were outside of their control. The deal was even more in question — the resource providers had no direct relationship with Washington's army, the weak federal government looked to each state to do its part in supporting the war effort.

If this "revolutionary venture" were written up into a business plan, would you fund it? Most of us would probably say no, except that the management (and its leader) knew how to continuously adapt the effort to improve the chances of success and the opportunity was well worth the effort. The deficiencies were recognized and fixed to secure victory. As an entrepreneur, remember that adaptation is not a sign of weakness or an indication of past failure, but is a necessary component to future success.


Gary Williams is affiliated with the BYU Center for Entrepreneurship. E-mail: [email protected]