Inside the Entrepreneur's Brain and What It Means for Sales

Brian Williams, PhD

At Brevet, we like to think we stand out (hopefully, in a good way!). In a profession where far too many decisions are made using anecdotes or gut, we’re obsessed with the science behind sales. A key part of this approach is our research partnerships with leading academics. One of our multi-year research projects has focused on better understanding high-performing complex solution reps. Our conclusion: just like entrepreneurs, the brains of effective solution reps are wired differently.

In some of our recent postings, we’ve begun to share the findings of this research. Now, from MIT researchers comes further support for our perspective. You can read the report in it’s full verbose glory here. But the gist of it is that the entrepreneurial brain works differently.

Using MRIs of study participants with similar demographics (some classified as either “managers” – typical business professionals and others as “entrepreneurs”), researchers reviewed brain activity to uncover decision-making style. Past research tells us that our minds basically use one of two decision-making strategies:

  • Exploitation decision making is all about optimizing the current state. It’s a logic-based approach, focused on improving current efficiency and productivity.
  • Exploration decision making involves resisting the urge to reach an immediate conclusion. This approach means taking a step back in a broader, uncertain search for alternatives.

The notion of “exploration” reminds us of one of our favorite characterizations of entrepreneurial thinking, which comes from scholar Lee Thayer. He says great entrepreneurs focus on the “possibilities of escape from what might otherwise appear to be incomprehensible, or from what might otherwise appear to us to be a chaotic, indifferent, or incorrigible world.” That’s a great way to think about “exploration” decision making. 

The researchers found that entrepreneurs aren’t just people who excel at exploration decision making, although that’s definitely an important part of the entrepreneurial brain for sure. What’s really key is what happens when entrepreneurs engage in explorative decision making. When entrepreneurs take an explorative course of action, they use both their left and right cortex, unlike “managers” who tended to just use their left.

As you probably recall from your 9th grade science class, the right cortex is linked to creative thought and emotional processing. The left brain is all about logic and rational thinking. These findings support the view that while entrepreneurs must think out of the box, they also need to make sure their ideas have commercial viability.

Our perspective at Brevet is that successful sellers of complex products and services operate just like entrepreneurs. These salespeople don’t take the customer’s view of the problem at face value. They’re curious and pursue a deeper understanding of their customer’s internal workings and the broader market. Just like the mindset of the successful entrepreneurs, successful solutions sales reps are highly sensitive to changes in customer and market patterns. And, like the entrepreneurs in the MIT study, they deftly use both sides of their brains to find solutions for their prospects that have practical, economic value.

We’ll continue to explore this topic in future posts, including offering our take on how companies can use these insights on entrepreneurial thinking to improve how they select, develop, and manage their salespeople.

Brian Williams, PhD

Brian Williams, PhD

Researcher, consultant, and sales leader, Brian uses a data-driven approach to drive sales effectiveness. His clients include leading sales organizations in financial services, technology, healthcare, and professional services. Using insight from academics and change management, Brian helps senior leaders and sales enablement teams understand and succeed in today’s more demanding market. His research has been published in Harvard Business Review and other outlets.