Leveraging limitations is key to coaching a successful start-up

by: Gijs Spoor

At UnLtd (pronounce “unlimited”) Tamil Nadu we believe in people’s potential to change their world, but funny enough, my experience through coaching is that we see our “unlimited-ness” when recognise our limitations. When coaching up-and-coming social entrepreneurs we focus on four types of limitations: mental, emotional, psychological and physical and leverage them for success.

In the current trend of lean Start-ups, coaching is all about testing. This makes sense if you accept your limited understanding of the social system and its constant evolution. The trap of falling in love with your own solution is obvious -you are blind to its weakness, like you oversee your own child’s bad behaviour in school. Becoming aware of your limited understanding and seeing your assumptions for what they are the first steps to learning from the results of all that lean testing.

 

 Victor and John mid-coaching session during Bootcamp!

Victor and John mid-coaching session during Bootcamp!

Often, emotional limitation manifests in the insecurity of the founder. For a class of humans that is so aware about the global reality, it is astounding what little awareness social entrepreneurs have of themselves and their weaknesses. Self-awareness might be the single most determining factor for success -be it in the social change sector or in mainstream organisations. In coaching social start-ups we map team members based on whether they are driven by data or intuition and whether they are predominantly introvert or extrovert. That way, founders realise their own biases and then compensate for them to build strong, resilient teams.

Self-awareness might be the single most determining factor for success -be it in the social change sector or in mainstream organisations.

Psychological limitations include the limited bandwidth to deal with founders’ issues. In their book, Scarcity, scholars Mullainathan and Shafir point out that people who are short on time, money, and are experiencing stress (who knows a start-up founder that does not fall in this category?) respond to overwhelming challenges by “tunneling” and focusing only what is immediate and urgent. For overextended founders, reflecting on strategy is never as urgent as responding to an immediate customer or donor request. At UnLtd Tamil Nadu, we get founders to dedicate time to the long-term vision is by scheduling regular planning and review with free time and open spaces for founders to bring their unpredictable emergencies.

 Revathi and Nishit doing the Business Model Canvas with CARE Society

Revathi and Nishit doing the Business Model Canvas with CARE Society

“Be nice to your body by investing in sleep, good food and exercise,” should be the mantra of every social startup coach.

Finally, the physical limitation in the form of limited energy we have at our disposal. After two burnouts, I wanted to host a Nomad’s Hub – mainly for founders on the brink of burnouts- but then I realised this was going to require a lot of energy that I did not have. Instead, I partnered with an existing group, UnLtd India to form UnLtd Tamil Nadu an incubator that uses limitations as a way to realize limitlessness. Choosing battles is something changemakers are notoriously bad at. “Be nice to your body by investing in sleep, good food and exercise,” should be the mantra of every social startup coach.

It is time that the social change sector truly liberates itself from business-as-usual and begins to celebrate limitations as basis for interdependence and what the French-Vietnamese spiritual leader Thich Nhath Hanh calls “interbeing”. Only then we will truly experience unlimitedness.