Austrian economics helps entrepreneurs to develop and implement more effective business strategies, and to open up streams of continuous innovation. As Joe Matarese, CEO of Medicus Healthcare Solutions, said about Austrian economics in relation to business: It just works (see Mises.org/E4B_126).
In episode #127 (Mises.org/E4B_127), Matt McCaffrey outlined the Austrian strategy process of Explore and Expand, and its logic development. This week, he helps us dig deeper to identify the principles of Austrian economics that underpin our distinctive approach to business strategy.
Key Takeaways and Actionable Insights
Realism: real people, real markets, real entrepreneurs in real firms.
Mainstream economics has never been able to help business, because of its focus on math, models, and prediction. Real people and their decisions and interactions and motivations and emotions can not be captured in equations and mathematical functions.
Austrian economics has carved out a particular area of focus in the behavior of real people in its study of entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship. Austrians examine real entrepreneurial decision making day-to-day; they highlight real people experiencing value and entrepreneurs’ role in generating that value. From this base, Austrian economics investigates how individual actions and choices and interactions lead to the formation of markets.
Dynamism: The market is a process.
Austrian realism sees the market as a dynamic process, continuously unfolding in interaction and innovation and change. Mainstream economics, with its preference for the greater mathematical tractability that comes with abstraction, has no capability of dealing with this real world dynamism. The embrace and study of dynamic processes gives Austrian economics much of its applicability in business. The business world is never static. It can’t be understood in abstractions. It’s real and messy and changeable and unpredictable.
Uncertainty and complexity: embrace emergence.
Uncertainty is a keyword for Austrian economists. It’s a term that describes the real world in which entrepreneurial businesses operate. They can never know for sure what comes next; they can’t anticipate all of the interactions between competitors, changing customer preferences, technological advances and social and economic trends. There is no sure-footed way to plan for the future. Austrians recognize uncertainty, and help businesses think about how to cope with it, how to narrow it, how to accumulate knowledge to lighten it, how to weigh decisions in the environment of uncertainty.
The new scientific term for uncertainty is complexity: in any system, the interactions are so many and their results are so unpredictable that modeling and forecasting are impossible, and outcomes are defined as emergent (i.e., outputs happen in a way that is not predicted by merely combining inputs). Austrian economics helps businesses deal with emergence.
Subjectivism: People are people, both as consumers and as providers.
One of the realistic principles of Austrian economics is to deal with people as people: we are all subjective in our valuations and judgments and emotions. We are not homo economicus: perfectly rational (in the mainstream economists’ definition of rational) in objectively weighing benefits and their opportunity costs. If all we are doing in producing goods and services for consumption is trashing the planet, then we can’t be rational, in their eyes.
In order to understand business and understand entrepreneurship, it is absolutely necessary to begin with subjectivism. Consumers’ subjective values ultimately determine what is produced; if consumers don’t value something, producers won’t make it. On the producer side, entrepreneurs’ subjective valuations of the resources they have available to them to assemble in a production process affect the value of their business.
It is entrepreneurs’ subjective evaluation that results in the identification of new uses for a resource, and the introduction of new innovations. Subjective values lie underneath every new business relationship with customers, from streaming movies to google searches to online travel booking. Subjectivism is everywhere in the economy and in business.
Time: How to plan in the present to satisfy customers in the future.
Austrians are unique in their understanding of the economic role of time in business. Entrepreneurs deal in future time. They imagine better futures in which customers enjoy greater satisfaction, and then they imagine how to bring it about and act on their imagination. Production — getting from imagination to consumption — takes time. Entrepreneurs are dealing with buying decisions in the present (such as hiring and buying inputs) for selling decisions in the future. They can’t know future prices or future customer preferences, so it’s a bet.
The consumption decisions customers make today reflect entrepreneurial decisions that were made weeks, months, years or decades in the past. Austrian economics helps entrepreneurs manage the contingencies of time.
Time makes the customer the boss.
Austrians utilize the concept of consumer sovereignty as an analytical tool. It means that consumers are the ultimate decision-makers in all economic systems, because what they buy or don’t buy determines what is produced. Their power is a result of the time it takes to produce. The value of resources that entrepreneurs assemble today depends on what consumers think and feel in the future.
Forecasting is tricky and best avoided, but patterns can be recognized.
A consequence of time and consumer sovereignty is the fragility and inaccuracy of forecasts. How is it possible to forecast consumer tastes in the future? There are some exceptional entrepreneurs who get it right. What’s their secret? Austrians’ understanding of dynamics and complexity can help point to the processes most likely to be associated with success, without attempting to forecast it.
One alternative to forecasting is pattern recognition. Jeff Bezos said that consumers are unlikely in the future to ask for higher prices, lower quality or slower delivery. That’s pattern recognition. It’s generalized and broad based and lacking in precision and specificity. But there is a consistency to some patterns that entrepreneurs can recognize and act upon, adding their own idiosyncratic insights and guesses to shape the actual value propositions they will make to consumers.
Out of all this emerges the Austrian entrepreneurial method.
We’ve all been educated in the scientific method. It’s utopian: experiments conducted with strict controls will yield the truth.
The entrepreneurial method is different, but with equal status, and greater applicability in open — i.e., human — systems where control is not an option.
It’s a bit messy and hard to characterize with precision, but it’s nonetheless real. It starts with imagination — imagining a future in which customer dissatisfactions are addressed and resolved. Their world is made better. This is proactive creativity on the entrepreneur’s part, triggered by existing highly dispersed knowledge, including tacit knowledge, held by the entrepreneur and others.
The entrepreneur designs a business model that might be able to resolve the identified customer dissatisfactions in the future and assembles resources that he or she believes, in the right combination, could accomplish the task. There’s no correct way; the entrepreneur draws on the realism of Austrian economics to best understand the challenges and how to address them.
The entrepreneur then advances with her or his own form of experiment. It’s not controlled in a closed environment. It’s a hard commitment of resources in a definite format to make a value proposition to customers. The experiment consists in ascertaining the customer’s response: like or dislike, buy or not buy, use and enjoy or use and reject? The experiment does not end there. It is continuous — receive the result, decide on how or whether to change the proposition, and try again.
Gut feeling or intuition or personal subjective heuristics all have roles to play in entrepreneurial decision making. Austrian economics captures these phenomena in the concept of judgment under conditions of uncertainty.
Organizing for the exercise of judgment.
Since judgment is the ultimate generative energy in producing value for customers, and since it’s personal and individual, how do firms grow? If judgement rests with a single entrepreneur, such as a founder, growth can’t scale, and will quickly reach its limits. Austrians have the organizational design solution: delegated judgment. Austrian leaders are able to design and implement non-hierarchical organizations in which every employee is empowered to exercise entrepreneurial judgment.
They do so by substituting value codes for authority. Value codes are the unwritten codes (although they might be found in the employee handbook) and conventions of “how we do things around here”, how we generate value for customers, the mission and purpose and internal methods of the firm.
“Austrian Entrepreneurial Principles” (PDF): Mises.org/E4B_128_PDF
Austrian Perspectives on Entrepreneurship, Strategy, and Organization by Nicolai J. Foss, Peter G. Klein, and Matthew McCaffrey: Mises.org/E4B_127_Book