Possessive individualism in entrepreneurship: A convenient lie

I was watching a Rugby Try and thought about the player who did the Try. The player who did the try may get the credit, but the actual effort was cumulative and the opportunity was emergent. Without the cumulative skills, the synergy of the whole team, and the contingent emergent opportunity the Try would never be possible. This made me think about the idea of Possessive Individualism which is dominant in Entrepreneurship


Possessive Individualism in Entrepreneurship

Most entrepreneurship models, particularly the prescriptive models like the lean-startup, business plan, etc. are based on the idea of the sole entrepreneur making decisions. It is also visible in the expertise framing of effectuation by Saras Saraswathy. This relates to the conception of Possessive individualism, which is the assumption that capacities, beliefs, and desires, etc. are possessions of an individual (Macpherson, 2010).

In this approach, the individual is viewed atomistically as ‘essentially the proprietor of his own person or capacities; which include: intelligence; cognitive capacities such as memory; the ability to process information; and such personality characteristics as desires and wants, crucially ‘owing nothing to society for them’(MacPherson, 1962, p. 3; 2010).

Such Possessive individualism is convenient for reductionistic studies that ignore the difficulty of complexity and the context.

The problem is that the reality of entrepreneurship is far from the case. Realworld cognition, decisions, actions, expertise, etc are extended outside of the individual. Donald Trump can hire the best programmers in the world, and functionally perform far better than any single expert programmer. In the real actual world we are living in, Richard Branson who struggled with accounting doesn’t had to practice MCQ tests to become better at accounting before starting his venture. Instead, he can hire as many accountants as he wants. Thus functionally perform far better than any single expert accountant. Now think of sophisticated tools or software for the practice of accounting. Most of the tools currently available are far more intelligent than any single expert accountant.

According to Clark and Chalmers(1998), real-world cognition and decisions are extended outside of our brain. They present the idea of active externalism in which objects within the environment function as a part of the mind.

They argue that the separation between the mind, the body, and the environment is an unprincipled distinction. This suggests that entrepreneurial cognition and decisions are not simply happening inside the entrepreneur’s brain, but extended outside. 

Another way to view it is the distributed nature of real-world decisions(Rapley, 2008; Schneeweiss,2012; Charles et al, 1997, 1999). In contexts like entrepreneurship, there are multiple stakeholders with diverse and conflicting beliefs, preferences, and goals. They all are part of entrepreneurial cognition and decisions.

This distributed nature of decisions in entrepreneurship is partially influenced by the distributed nature of expertise in complex social domains (Edwards, 2010).

Thus, It is not necessary that an entrepreneur must be an expert in finance, accounting, programming, law, etc. Such expertise is distributed(and or extended) across various individuals(lawyer, doctor) institutions(law enforcement, companies), artifacts(tools, software), etc.

It is not even necessary that the entrepreneur know the entrepreneurial core activities. He/She can still win in-case he/she is in the right high network place, get good people to mentor and work, get access to specialized institutions, have a rich family to support, etc.

Further, In a complex domain, decision-makers(entrepreneurs or managers) are not confronted with problems that are independent of each other, but with dynamic situations that consist of complex systems of changing problems that interact with each other. These problems are labeled by Ackoff as messes (Ackoff 1978; Bennet et al, 2008).


Macpherson, Crawford Brough. “The political theory of possessive individualism: Hobbes
to Locke.” (1962; 2010).

Clark, Andy, and David Chalmers. “The extended mind.” analysis 58, no. 1 (1998): 7-19.

 Schneeweiss, Christoph. Distributed decision making. Springer Science & Business Media,

Charles, Cathy, Amiram Gafni, and Tim Whelan. “Decision-making in the physician and patient
encounter: revisiting the shared treatment decision-making model.” Social science & medicine 49,
no. 5 (1999): 651-661.

Charles, Cathy, Amiram Gafni, and Tim Whelan. “Shared decision-making in the medical
encounter: what does it mean?(or it takes at least two to tango).” Social science & medicine 44,
no. 5 (1997): 681-692.

Edwards, Anne. Being an expert professional practitioner: The relational turn in expertise. Vol. 3.
Springer science & business media, 2010

Ackoff, Russell Lincoln. “The Art of Problem Solving Accompanied by Ackoff’s Fables.” (1978)

Bennet, Alex, and David Bennet. “The decision-making process in a complex situation.” In
Handbook on Decision Support Systems 1, pp. 3-20. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg, 2008

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