How enterprises can be as swift as startups

Many organisations have adopted a startup mindset in an effort to change and adapt more quickly.

Uber, Twitter, Box, Lyft – the list of startups that began with nothing and became hugely popular and successful is both exciting and inspirational. Executives of large corporations are no exception. Some of the most staid, traditional organizations have remade themselves in the image of startups. Big companies like GE, MasterCard, Microsoft, and even Coca-Cola, have embraced the startup sensibility, rejiggering their operations to act in a lean, efficient, and open manner. According to a survey conducted by Innovation Leader, 67% of large organizations believe that implementing the startup mindset can help their organizations “make decisions based on evidence and data, rather than internal biases and opinions,” while 61% see “speed of development” as an important benefit, and 48% believe that acting like a startup gives them “more flexibility about making changes to ideas.”   

But the road from enterprise organization to startup organization is a hard one. Dismantling an established, top-down corporate culture and developing the small teams that inspire innovation requires an attitude change across all levels of an organization, from low-level workers, to managers, salespeople, support personnel, and even the folks in the mailroom. To get on board and function well, everyone also needs to be educated on how the process works. Indeed, the great danger for many organizations is the possibility that some workers just won't “get it.” Unlike in a real startup, where that spirit of innovation and that small-team culture is organic, the artificial imposition of those mores on a traditional organization requires some extra effort in order to be successful. 

So, what is the secret of startup success? How can organizations effectively import a culture of innovation and uproot their traditional way of doing things? How can enterprises overcome resistance to change? 

The process needs to start with employees, managers and executives. The first step is acknowledging the need for change, which is essential to actively creating a new culture. However, not just any attitude change will do. Employees need to balance their autonomy from an old-fashioned corporate structure with the reality that they are still serving as part of a larger entity. Meanwhile, companies need to give their employees the freedom and resources they need to act independently, and teach them new ways of acting on their own. In other words, employees need to become resilient and gain the ability to rely on themselves to plan for the future and respond to change. Resilience, indeed, is the lifeblood of startups. In some part, this is because they have no choice. Small teams need to be self-reliant and flexible in order to encourage the use of the tools afforded by modern technology. Team members independently solve problems, tailor solutions to their needs, and use their personal skills to overcome challenges.

Making employees resilient is the key to making enterprises as swift and inventive as startups. The more individuals attempt to resolve issues by themselves, sit over problems and rack their brains to create solutions, the wider the variety of solutions will be. This diverse thinking can lead to the breakthrough that will eventually bring a team together, enabling them to turn their next big idea into a reality.   

This works seamlessly when two or three partners are working together in a garage, but transferring that system to a large corporation with thousands of employees requires work. While the objective is to provide team members with the creative freedom they need to dream and create, the day to day reality of an organization requires that managers, department heads, budget officers, in-house regulation experts and others provide input on how a product will look or what it will involve. The trick is to combine that independent, innovative process with the needs of an organization. Unfortunately, not all organizations respond well to independent innovation.   

One way around this problem is for managers to channel creativity, rather than let it run amok. Practically speaking, managers should listen and observe what their teams are doing, while providing a platform for individuals to provide their input. In essence, the aim is to encourage independent thinking and at the same time communicate and act as a collective. Ultimately, team leaders will have a creative, more motivated staff to guide in the right direction. 

On the company level, information about individual team projects should be accessible through a collective database, providing managers and other individuals and groups with a window into what any given team is working on. Transparency among management and department heads makes systems more efficient. Feedback can be processed and integrated quickly, removing the delays often presented by the bureaucratic backlogs in enterprises. Transparency, in terms of access to resources and information, also allows team members to become more resilient, with less red tape leading to quicker decisions and subsequently more innovation. The unfortunate reality of today’s large organizations is such that leadership and management play politics, which forces their staff to wait to implement great ideas, or stops them altogether. I have personally experienced these types of delays in organizations I have worked for, and they are something we simply do not have the space for in modern times. 

Startups, at least the successful ones, also have a lesson to teach enterprises in terms of group dynamics. The leaders of startups are able to manage their egos in ways that enable their team’s success. More broadly speaking, startup culture encourages any and every member of a team to innovate, contribute their opinion, act with confidence and support their colleagues. As a unit, this enables startups to believe they are capable of greatness. Teams that do not have the confidence and determination to scale and take on industry probably will not. In that sense, startups need a sizable ego. However, as individuals, members of successful startups keep their egos in check. The key is to recognize a good idea can come from anyone – the CEO, a team manager, or even a part-time intern still in university. A good idea is a good idea and should be treated as such. Startup mentality includes a willingness to put individual ego aside, which makes them more flexible and more resilient. The same must apply to enterprises. 

Finally, a crucial element of startup culture is employees’ sense of personal ownership of their decisions, which is counterpoised by a willingness to take risks. Financial viability is far from guaranteed for startups, and every member must produce to insure the success of a project and the company as a whole. There is a feeling of investment and a personal stake in every action and the future of the company. Without the luxury of having a paycheck guaranteed six months down the road, startups are willing to act boldly. When they take risks, they put themselves on the line and do all they can to follow through. 

Though they make time to implement, these systemic changes can be the keys to enabling a large organization to “upgrade” itself to the level of resilient startup – providing innovative team members with the freedom and space to do their thing, while ensuring that the innovations they come up with are innovations the company can use. The power of resilience can, indeed, help the startup spirit to thrive, even in the largest of organizations. 

Hachim Badji, CEO of Connectik 

Image Credit: SFIO CRACHO / Shutterstock

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Hachim Badji, the CEO of Connectik, has more than 20 years of experience at both the International Red Cross and the United Nations.