Academic institutions worldwide, such as Stanford University’s Center for Teaching and Learning or Cornell University’s Center for Teaching Excellence, are searching for ways to improve learning outcomes – knowledge and skills that students take away from the classroom. These concepts are also finding their way into the entrepreneurial environment, as learning has become increasingly important in the today’s chaotic economy. [1]

Learning outcomes as a concept have been studied for thousands of years, reaching back to Socrates and his students. Socrates spent his entire life trying to understand a better way of conversation that could not only enlighten the student, but everyone in the classroom, including the teacher. His findings led to the creation of the Socratic method – a dialectical (discussion-based) process for the meaningful acquisition of knowledge.

Before we can appreciate the values that entrepreneurs can gain from the Socratic method, we need to first define the Socratic method and its role in entrepreneurial learning.

The Socratic Method (Re)defined.

Since Socrates never recorded his own teachings, our understanding of the Socratic method comes from the Socratic Dialogues, a series of stories written by his most famous student, Plato. The purpose of the Socratic method is to generate an open-ended discourse, so its own definition is vague and open to interpretation.

One way of defining the Socratic method is as “a systematic process for examining the ideas, questions, and answers that form the basis of human belief. It involves recognizing that all new understanding is linked to prior understanding, that thought itself is a continuous thread woven throughout lives rather than isolated sets of questions and answers.” [2]

Another way to understand the Socratic method is to understand what it’s not. This can best be viewed in Socrates’s direct opposition and reaction to Sophism. Sophism was another method of teaching in Ancient Greece in which a handful of intellectuals taught general wisdom about human affairs, such as rhetoric and philosophy, to children of the wealthy. While early Sophists were well-respected, later Sophists came to be known as deceptive (due to their use of rhetoric) and elitist (since they reserved their teaching to only those who could afford it). Critics accused the Sophists of doling out opinions on specific subject matter as opposed to actually encouraging independent thinking.

The Socratic method, on the other hand, is a way of thinking that allows individuals to define their own purpose for learning and explore this purpose through open-minded questioning of what they hold to be true.

Entrepreneurs can find value in the Socratic method because they, too, are bombarded by assumptions based on what others and they themselves believe to be the best plan of action for pursuing a business idea.

Entrepreneurial learning, or the acquisition of knowledge necessary for creating a business venture, is built around the constant questioning and testing of these assumptions – theories about what we hold to be true – for validity. These assumptions can range from beliefs about what the market wants, where opportunities lie, to the effectiveness of a new product feature.

The Socratic Method and Entrepreneurial Learning.

The nature of the Socratic method is indefinite and, therefore, has countless interpretations and applications. In examining the Socratic principles outlined by Rob Reich, a Political Science professor at Stanford University, we observed that the principles he advocates for in the classroom translates to entrepreneurial learning. We applied Reich’s interpretation of the Socratic method to entrepreneurship and found valuable insights relevant to starting successful companies.

Here are two quick takeaway on what entrepreneurs can learn from Socrates.

1. The Socratic method provides focus through clarity of purpose.

Reich encourages his students to use the Socratic method “to examine [their] values, principles, and beliefs”. In essence, this approach demands that you as an entrepreneur answer the question, “Why are we here? Why do we exist as an organization?”

Founders who define values, goals, and concepts for their company set a clear direction for the organization. By constantly questioning our belief system, we reach clarity of purpose. Clarity of purpose leads to a shared sense of accountability, keeping team members on the same page and in pursuit of the exact same outcomes. Organizations, then, are able to fully maximize human capital when everyone’s desires are aligned and pointing to a shared vision of the future. Like running a race, it makes sense for a company to first define its starting line in order to work towards an intended finish line. Furthermore, given the myriad directions that outside forces (markets, investors, competitors) can pull an organization, the Socratic principles of self-inquiry can help you stay the course through the inevitable distractions.

When a company clearly defines and communicates its belief system, it attracts customers and employees who share similar beliefs about the world. Apple is the most obvious and universally recognizable example of a company who does this extremely well. Their rallying cry of “Think Different” engenders fanatical loyalty and support for the Apple brand.

2. Use the Socratic method to develop and reinforce an entrepreneurial mindset.

Reich states that the “Socratic method is better used to demonstrate complexity, difficulty, and uncertainty than at eliciting facts about the world”. Note the keywords: complexity, difficulty, uncertainty. These words paint a realistic picture of day-to-day life at the beginning of a venture, and in so doing present an opportunity to learn.

Most people view this set of words as negative. An entrepreneurial mindset involves interpreting complexity, difficulty, and uncertainty as an opportunity to test assumptions, run experiments, and create knowledge from these activities.

Entrepreneurs start testing assumptions by defining current beliefs based on past observations or intuition. They then ask themselves or are asked by outsiders (investors, mentors, etc.) questions that serve as the basis for setting up experiments. Whether in the form of interviewing customers, doing competitor analysis, or conducting A/B testing, experimentation essentially tests what entrepreneurs hold to be true against reality.

The Socratic principles of defining current beliefs, developing a question, and setting up experiments to discover new insights are the core building blocks of entrepreneurial learning. The Socratic method is a powerful, world-changing idea for a reason, and entrepreneurs, whether consciously or unconsciously, follow a Socratic path as they grow their ventures.

[1] Fast Company’s This is Generation Flux: Meet the Pioneers of the New (and Chaotic) Frontier of Business

[2] Learn NC’s Socratic method

[3] Stanford University Newsletter on Teaching’s The Socratic Method: What it is and How to Use it in the Classroom