Startup From Scratch II: On Entrepreneurial Mindsets

Startups create jobs, new products and disruption. Agreed. We all love startups and we know that many in Iraq work hard to make ideas ‘happen’, with stories of Iraqi entrepreneurs inspiring us everyday. At the same time, around the world and particularly in Iraq, the process is far from easy.

Our Startup from Scratch articles are a new series written for entrepreneurs looking to start a venture or for those already in the process of building one. We will be summarising resources and providing food for thought in the hope of being a part of your startup learning journey. We’re far from knowing all the answers but we know that this series will provoke thinking on important aspects of your business and help avoid obstacles. A work in progress, we’re always curious to know your thoughts and experiences too, what you find helpful or what you may simply disagree with.

In our last piece on Startup from scratch, we discussed culture as a crucial macro factor influencing and shaping the activity and opportunities for entrepreneurs to start creative ventures. Culture does play a huge role in how entrepreneurs are perceived and motivated. However, many would also agree that individual micro factors play a similarly huge role too in identifying opportunities to start new ventures. More specifically, we’re talking about seeing things entrepreneurially. To see things like an entrepreneur, people need to develop an entrepreneurial mindset.

An entrepreneurial mindset means cognitive flexibility

cognitive flexibility mindset

Cognitive flexibility is one crucial building block to developing an entrepreneurial mindset. Cognitive flexibility is the ability to see things from a different perspective, seeing the counterintuitive in things that may bring about entrepreneurial opportunities. This involves first thinking divergently to bring about creativity and then evaluating ideas through convergent thinking. 

How many uses for an istikaan can you think of?

We’ve all had those awkward moments where you freeze once someone asks you to think outside the box and suddenly can’t think of any ideas, even the ones you would typically think of on any ordinary day. That’s because to bring about potential ideas and solutions, it helps to expand the box itself instead. This makes you think of more ways to reframe the pain or problem you want to solve through your startup. Individually, think of as many problem-solution pairs that you can. Throw in every crazy, boring, silly idea. Prioritise quantity over quality at this stage.

How many uses for an istikaan can you think of?

Triggering divergent thinking only comes through an open-ended activity, be it free writing or journaling, to allow any thoughts that come to mind to expand in different directions. The more free flowing the ideas, the more likely you are to get to something more original or creative.  One of the best ways to practice divergent thinking is to think of two or three household items (anything from a ruler to the istikaan you’ve just sipped your chai from) and brainstorm as many uses as you can for the item.

For any problem or pain you come across, thinking divergently is the first step towards coming up with suitable solutions. After jotting down as many solutions as possible, build on each of those suggestions. Building on divergent thinking suggestions is best done in a team or group. When brainstorming ideas, put in an idea to the group and invite everyone to build their concepts on top of the previous person’s one.

The classic Honey Pot Lesson in Creativity illustrates how building on each other’s ideas through extending them, however crazy they may get, can actually bring you to some practical solutions to real problems. Divergent thinking is essential to creativity. And yes, we managed to find a way to mention chai in an article about startups.

Where divergent thinking draws the dots, convergent thinking connects them

Most of us tend to practice a lot of convergent thinking, i.e. in a more logical manner, with one idea following the other. However, in creative contexts, convergent thinking follows divergent thinking. The ideas, however crazy they may be, that you came up with in your divergent thinking exercise can now be looked at as a whole. Here, using the knowledge and prototypes we have, we look to connect the dots through linking ideas that work together, evaluating the usefulness of the ideas we’ve jotted down. In the entrepreneurial setting, this involves evaluating the potential of these ideas or combination of ideas in building an entrepreneurial opportunity.

Entrepreneurs look in the fridge to decide the ‘marga’ they’ll make


It’s been a long working day and you need to cook up some dinner. You’re exhausted, hungry and would rather not go out to shop for more ingredients. Most of us would look in the fridge, see what courgettes or aubergines are left in the fridge to decide what marga (gravy) would go with your rice. The problem is that traditionally we’ve always assumed that entrepreneurs dream of the marga first and then go out to shop for the ingredients, even when resources and time are scarce.

The effectuation theory of entrepreneurship challenged this view where Saras Sarasvathy found that instead entrepreneurs, whether new or experienced, use a common logic to minimise their risks of failure. Instead of starting with marga and shopping for the ingredients, entrepreneurs assess what marga to make based on the ingredients they have. Assuming that the future is highly unpredictable, entrepreneurs imagine possible ends based on their given means, whilst traditional managers select between given means to achieve a predetermined goal.

The next time you’re thinking of a solution to a problem, try doing it the other way around. Instead of thinking of the goal first, look at what means you have, jot down as many solutions as you can using those means and see what you come up with.

Special thanks and shoutout to Dr. Nettra Pan, entrepreneurship researcher and educator, for her help in providing input and ideas for this series!

Khamael Al Safi

Khamael is passionate about understanding the work of startups and the stories of entrepreneurs, particularly those in Iraq. She is also passionate about helping young people build employability skills for the job market and has taught subjects in entrepreneurship, organisational behaviour and psychology to undergrad and postgrad students in London and Dubai. Having worked in consulting for both the private and public sector in the Middle East, she has been involved in training and advisory on corporate governance and accountability, as well as building open, trustworthy data ecosystems.

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