Colleges and universities are institutions for critical thinking. They champion the development of the mind and teach students to understand the in-depth problems that they lay before them.

And there are many tangible and practical benefits to critical thinking. From jobs as analysts and scientists, to being effective communicators and problem solvers at large.

But the focus on critical thinking in the universities overlooks an important mode of thinking: entrepreneurial thinking.

Entrepreneurship programs are increasing across the United States (with over 1,600 now around the country). As are students interested in becoming entrepreneurs.

To accommodate that growing interest, schools have to do more than provide entrepreneurship lectures and pitch competitions. They have to build entrepreneurial thinkers.

So what is entrepreneurial thinking?

Entrepreneurial thinking recognizes that solutions to problems aren’t always found by picking apart analyzing ideas. Solutions lay in the investigation of the external world. By its nature, entrepreneurial thinking is outward facing, not inward facing.

It has to be customer focused and experiential, not traditional and confined.

You can’t learn or develop entrepreneurial thinking in academic institutions. The confines of the classroom don’t teach it. Instead, you need to go outside of your campus, understand, interact, and communicate with your target audience.

All for the endgame of creating a viable solution that has never existed before.

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And critical thinking alone can never equip you to create that solution.

To succeed as an entrepreneur, you have to know what your customers want. That can only be done by experience. You need to understand those customers and discover their crucial pain points.

An entrepreneurial thinker can’t accomplish that without first leaving the room. Because leaving the room is the most important part. The problem is that, as we’ve discovered in every 3 Day Startup program we’ve delivered across the globe, the more brilliant the critical thinkers have the hardest time taking that step.

To be an entrepreneur, it’s not enough to know your own mind, you have to know the minds of others.

Rather than being critical and analytic, to be a good entrepreneurial thinker (and a good entrepreneur) you need to be open and curious. Entrepreneurial thinking requires humility — the realization that what one already knows is just a base of knowledge. And that base can only be built by understanding and talking to potential customers.

It’s like the difference between being a successful trial lawyer and a successful appellate lawyer.

In many ways, appellate lawyers are some of the purest practical examples of critical thinkers.

I once asked a friend of mine why they enjoyed being an appellate lawyer as opposed to being a trial lawyer. Her answer was that she loved the structure of having a single room that contained everything about the case inside it. And there may be 4 boxes in that room or 400. But all she has to do is dig through the boxes and analyze their contents.

She found comfort in her universe being tied to that court record and her own knowledge and reasoning ability.

It’s an understandable comfort, knowing that the answer is there in that space and trusting yourself to find it. But it is not entrepreneurial.

Entrepreneurs are more like trial lawyers. There are fewer limitations, and the answer lies in other people. In the evidence. And to be successful they have to explore, discover, and understand those people and that evidence. Their task and their success is tied to more than just what they know. They will need to tease the answers out of their witnesses and understand them fully.

Trial lawyers need to by dynamic, curious, and personable. This is very similar to what one must do to succeed as an entrepreneurial thinker.

Entrepreneurial thinking isn’t something that people inherently have or don’t. It needs to be developed.

But to be develop entrepreneurial thinking, you need to practice it. And there are methods that colleges and universities can adopt to help their students bridge the gap.

The first of which is placing more of a premium on telling other people’s stories. And documenting their experiences in their curriculum. Students can also adopt this method themselves and start practicing this kind of storytelling. Particularly if students want to make and impact, create a product, or improve a process.

Knowing what interests them and observing people navigate that space is invaluable to developing the ability to think entrepreneurially.

And companies and organizations put this method into practice the world over. Ideo, a prominent design thinking organization, exemplifies this in their operations. I once saw an Ideo-sponsored exhibit on a stroller they created. To make their solution, they spent hundreds of hours watching people using existing strollers. They watched their frustrations, observed what they found easy or difficult, and created their solution.

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That’s how entrepreneurs understand what their customer’s problems are.

Sometimes your customers or target audience won’t even fully know themselves. They may describe their problems in vague or imprecise terms. But through observation you can see and empathize first hand with your customer.

Observation and empathy go hand in hand with entrepreneurial thinkers, out of necessity. Where critical thinking isn’t typically empathetic thinking, entrepreneurial thinking has to be.

Entrepreneurial thinking isn’t only observational, it is also descriptive.

To some, this component of entrepreneurial thinking may be a no brainer. But describing what you observe and what you create are not only more difficult than many think, but more necessary.

Increasingly, students feel inclined to analogize what they see or what they do instead of directly describing it. But describing what a problem is, what a solution is, and how it works is integral not only to becoming a good entrepreneurial thinker, but becoming a good entrepreneur.

You have to be able to pick apart the specifics of things and be able to describe them in a very plain way. Precision is absolutely integral. It is a challenging feat to accomplish. You need to constantly practice it. And institutions of higher education can be a highly effective vehicle for that kind of practice and that kind of learning.

Why is developing the ability to think entrepreneurially necessary?

This answer is simple. If colleges and universities want their campuses to be hubs of entrepreneurship they need to support them in every way they can.

Pitch competitions, business model courses, and entrepreneurship textbooks are not enough to grow entrepreneurs.

Establishing programming on campus that pushes students to think experientially and interact with customers face-to-face, such as 3 Day Startup, is a good first step. But embedding these skills further into curriculums is the key to developing true entrepreneurial thinkers.

And the more entrepreneurial thinkers there are, the closer we all are to innovations that can push us into a better future.

In future posts, we’ll talk about how universities, professors, and students can practice entrepreneurial thinking across the curriculum. If you’ve seen a professor outside of the business school (or traditional entrepreneurship classes) teach entrepreneurial thinking, tell us who they are in the comments! We can’t wait to tell other universities how to use those tools and technics to build a new generation of entrepreneurial thinkers. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook to keep up-to-date on our latest entrepreneurship articles! 

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