Many people believe that entrepreneurship can't be taught--you've either got it or you don't.

But that doesn't stop colleges and universities from trying to teach how to startup. And if you believe the U.S. News and World Report ranking, nobody teaches entrepreneurship better than Babson College, where I teach strategy and entrepreneurship.

I spent the morning of September 1 helping to orient about 75 members of the entering undergraduate class. In two 60 minute sessions, I led five groups of students through an exercise that tested their entrepreneurial instincts and left them to consider two critical mindsets of successful founders.

Each team had 20 minutes to create a Rube Goldberg machine and demonstrate its operation to the rest of the class. The teams had five tennis balls and I asked them to use what was available in the classroom to create a process in which each student would find a creative way to touch each tennis ball as it passed from the first student to the last one.

There were big differences in how well the five groups did. The best group created a humorous and creative dance that blended spinning chairs, balls bounced off of walls, balls rolled across tables, and tossed across the classroom before landing in a trash bucket. By contrast, the worst group spent 18 minutes planning an elaborate process that was so complex that they did not have time to practice it--their demo was botched.

What made the difference between the best and the worst group was their different approaches to leadership. The best team picked a leader who solicited everyone's ideas and quickly settled on the best ones through a process of trial and error. Everyone on the team agreed on how they would work in the first 10 minutes and spent the next 10 minutes practicing their approach, learning from their mistakes and improving. By the time their 20 minutes had elapsed they were able to execute their machine with ease.

The worst-performing team spent the first five minutes fighting over who would be the leader. Then the chosen leader politely listened to the ideas of every person in the group but did not want to offend anyone by saying no to anyone. Fifteen minutes later they felt the pressure to decide and had agreed on a vaguely described blueprint. In the last two minutes they practiced it and realized that it had some bugs. The demonstration of their machine was fairly well executed--but they lost two of their five tennis balls.

What does this little exercise tell us about entrepreneurship? Here are three takeaways:

1. Entrepreneurs make the most of limited resources.

Like these students, entrepreneurs must make the most out of the resources that they have at their disposal. Their ability to create something of value from next to nothing may be enough to inspire an investor with cash looking for a return to bet on the entrepreneurs who best demonstrate their ability to make something from nothing.

It helps to stage those somethings in a sequence to reflect ever-higher levels of learning. As I explained in my book, Hungry Start-Up Strategy, entrepreneurs can think about three stages: prototyping (build quick versions of the product and get feedback until a customer buys), customer base (sell the product to many customers), and expansion (grow more by going global).

2. Entrepreneurs tap their peoples' skills and interests.

If a startup CEO can inspire others with a compelling vision, she can attract talent. And if she's good at encouraging them to be creative and test out their ideas, they will create a learning machine that can find great solutions fast and without crushing the egos of the team members.

One of the best student teams started off by asking its members what they wanted to do in the Rube Goldberg machine. Some of them were afraid of throwing the tennis ball--others were eager to do it. They moved on quickly to explore what the non-throwers thought they could do well. Their final machine was creative and well-coordinated.

3. Entrepreneurs favor action learning over detailed planning.

The most effective of the five teams did a great job of brainstorming and picking the best ideas. But rather than try to overthink their ideas, the winning team started practicing its best ideas, making mistakes, learning from them, and trying an improved approach. While big companies like to spend months planning, effective entrepreneurs are more comfortable thinking of possible solutions to a problem, testing them out, getting feedback and getting better.

In the Rube Goldberg exercise, the teams that did the best job were the ones that could move the quickest from thinking about a strategy to trying it out. Moreover, those teams were able to pick up quickly on what worked and what needed to be cut. By the time their 20 minutes were up, they had created an entertaining and well-oiled machine.

Published on: Sep 2, 2014