Enterprise, Community and Complexity

Enterprise, community and complexity.  Slippery words.  So slippery that I wonder what can be meaningfully written about them.  But I will have a go.

Having worked on these ideas for many years I hold my beliefs tentatively.  But they offer the possibility of a very different direction for both promoting enterprise and building ‘harmonious and cohesive’ communities.  And few would argue that we don’t need a fresh approach.  That more of the same will get the job done.

It won’t.  We need to innovate and experiment.

Lets start with ‘enterprise’.  First, empty your mind of all those misconceptions that I must be talking about ‘business start’s, ‘cash flow forecasts’, ‘profits’ and ‘Dragons’.

I am not.

I am talking about enterprise as a measure of ‘agency’ in one’s own life.  The extent to which an individual is able to recognise what ‘progress’ (another slippery word) means and to take action its pursuit.  This is what I mean by enterprise.  It is the product of clear self-interest (I know what I want) and power (I have the confidence, skills and knowledge to take organised action in its pursuit).  An enterprising person is one who is clear on what they want from their life and actively pursues it.  An enterprising community is one which has many such people – because they are valued and supported.

If self-interest is ‘enlightened’ then it is likely that the product of enterprise will be a positive contribution to society.  If on the other hand self-interest is poorly understood then the product of enterprise may be damaging.  Enterprise in itself is not an inherently good thing. If we are going to pursue this route then we need to have faith in the essential positive nature of human beings.

If we are serious about developing ‘enterprise’, rather than managing the outputs that most enterprise funders are looking for, we need to concern ourselves with the development of self-interest and the accrual of power.   We are in the realms of person centred facilitation and education.  Not business planning.  This is an enormous shift both in what we do, and how we do it.   Helping people to clarify their self-interest and find the power to pursue it requires very different structures and processes.

It is worth noting that if you have money, there is a fair chance that at some time you will have hired a coach to help you with the difficult and personal work of clarifying self-interest and gaining the power you need to pursue it. And if they were a good coach they would not have manipulated you towards their preferred outputs – but would let you work on your own personal agenda.  If you have little or no money the chances of you ever having access to such a potentially transformational relationship are slim to none.  The relationship that you have with various ‘helpers’ is likely to be one where they try to manipulate you ‘back to work’, towards a ‘healthy diet’  or some such policy goal of funded output.

Over the last few years I have spoken with many enterprise educators, bureaucrats and practitioners and they have all accepted that this conception of enterprise has merit.  Not only will it help us to get more business start ups, but it will also help us to get large numbers of people acting in pursuit of their own wellbeing – however they define it.  It will also help us to make significant and real progress towards PSA 21 – Building More Cohesive, Active and Empowered Communities.

Which brings us to the question of how does this conception of enterprise  fit with ‘community’?

Community is a property that emerges when individuals and groups learn to negotiate their self-interest with the self-interests of others.  Community is an emergent property.  If this contention is right then it raises serious questions about approaches which attempt to provide short cuts to community (building community centres and one stop shops for example) without addressing the preconditions necessary in a complex adaptive system (such as society) for its emergence.

Community emerges when individuals learn how to associate and collaborate in pursuit of mutual self-interest.  When they recognise that the best way to achieve their own self-interest is to help others to achieve theirs.   When they understand the nature of reciprocity.  Or to borrow the words a well known Business Networking group that ‘givers gain’.

A beautiful by product of this is a raised awareness of the importance of difference.

If I learn how to associate and collaborate with someone who has different skills and knowledge, or a different cultural heritage to my own I am likely to gain more opportunities than if I associate with people who are pretty much the same as me.  Association across race, gender, age and so on provides the key to opportunity and provides a precondition that will allow harmonious communities to emerge.

With difference comes both opportunity and resilience.


  1. I agree with you about enterprise – most ‘enterprise’ programmes are really business start-up programmes and their aim is to increase economic activity. That’s not a bad thing in itself, it’s just more limited than what you’re describing and as you’ve pointed out before, it doesn’t always work and can go spectacularly wrong.

    Community is a more difficult concept, because it’s much more fluid – ideas of mutual self-interest are in a constant state of flux. The usual rationale for buildings and services is to meet needs identified by a community rather than to ‘build’ community, but as with enterprise, people often claim they’re doing more than they actually are, and the further up the bureaucratic ladder you go, the more outrageous the claims. My own bugbear is the phrase ‘delivering sustainable communities’ – as if such a thing could ever be delivered by one group of people to another.

  2. I found this article really helpful. There is nothing I disagree with. It does not alter my belief that high quality pre start and start up support and learning by doing should be available at as low a cost as any career training and support throughout the UK. Your research, track record, thinking and practice on enterprise coaching I fully accept as the expert view which we should base our development of enterprise coaches in the UK around.

    My only worry is that by defining enterprise and community in these ways, ways I accept, that the individual who needs to start their own business out of necessity or circumstance is marginalised. In other words regarded as ‘not worth’ enabling with the skills, know how and confidence to succeed.

    Government have never understood that if we enable 100 long term unemployed, with the right learning by doing and support, 6 of them will go on to build substantial enterprises. However, we don’t know which 6 at the beginning. Government are only bothered about their selective potential high growth businesses and future entrepreneurs (employers like the Dragons, Sugar et al) and innovative hi tec graduates and post graduates. Naturally i’m interested in enterprise skills and know how for these too and the many enterprising individuals you describe but i don’t want to exclude everyone having the skill and know how to develop an offer they can sell to a customer for a price that makes a profit and is paid in a timely way to allow incomings to be ahead of their outgoings.

    So there is a real opportunity to place high quality learning and support for enterprise skills and know into communities. This, in my view, needs to be enabled by the private and social enterprise sectors not government agencies. The best thing I can do at SFEDI is convince enough of the private sector to invest in your approach.

    • Cheers for that endorsement Tony.

      My intention is certainly not to marginalise – as you know I am a great advocate of enterprise – whether that requires a business to be started to not. In my world everyone would have access to a free, high quality coach to help them develop skills and confidence and to consider how they develop the economic and social engines that they need.

      Absolutely happy to help you present this thinking to both private sector and philanthropic investors.


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