Can You Act Small When You're Big (Part 2)?
In my last post, I asked whether large companies can have the agility of start-ups and smaller companies, if they can operate with the speed and flexibility needed in changing market environments. I also said I had my doubts and that the central driver of this inability to move is risk mitigation.
But while I still have those doubts, I don't believe all is lost.
There are things that companies can do to embed agility, flexibility and speed in specific areas of the business. They aren't easy, and they require guts, commitment and focus. They also require a leadership focus and commitment that values the true need for this type of innovation and an acceptance of the implications of such a philosophy.
Here are ten ideas to consider when embedding the start-up mentality within an organization:
- Carve-out a skunk works. Trying to embed start-up behavior in an ongoing, operating department is difficult, and some might argue, futile. When the goal is to develop a new way of thinking, a new product, a new capability, it's better to set up a separate group to focus on and drive that goal. This gives the team the freedom to think, act, operate differently without the constraints of an ongoing business, with its demands, processes and (often) baggage.
- Define the Big Goal. What is the team trying to get done? What is the dragon that needs to be slayed? Why is this imperative to the future of the customer, the company and the people? Every groundbreaking achievement must have a rallying cry.
- Deploy the right team. You can't just staff anyone on this team, and maybe not even your top performers in the traditional business. teams like these require people who are willing to "take a gamble" to do something unique, something that is out of the routine of the normal operational jobs that many are used to. Find your risk takers. Find those who don't give a shit about anything except the customer.
- Don't process-ize. The last thing the team needs is controls and structures. That doesn't mean you don't measure performance and results, but give them the freedom to do what they need to do, how they need to do it. That's what a start-up would do - without the encumbrances of any rigid process or structure.
- Iterate with the customer. Perfection is not necessary. Get to market quickly, Test often. Fail quickly. Iterate with the customer. Don't keep pushing to get to the complete, finished product. Let the market tell you when it is finished. Customers value results. They won't think less of you for it.
- Empower them with budgets. Give them the money to do what they need to do. Sure, have them account for it, but make sure they have some means to make things happen. But at the same time...
- Don't over budget. What you don't want is for the team to have access to any and all resources needed, such that innovation is lost. Some of the greatest innovations came from not having the money to do what you wanted to do, so you figure out a way around it, or a new approach to the problem. Necessity is the mother of invention.
- Incent appropriately. I don't necessarily mean just compensation. How do you make it worthwhile for the team to step out of their comfortable jobs and take a risk on an initiative that may not even pan out. How do you get them to take career risk? Salary? Bonus? Equity in the upside? All of the above? Maybe you could offer a safe path back to their current roles (or a path to something bigger and broader). (I suspect though, that anyone who is willing to take on a task like this, isn't worried about the specific consequences. That's who they are.)
- Put a single leader in place. There has to be a single leader, who buys and believes in the mission, the goal, the dragon to be slayed. Give them the reins and give them the freedom to go make it happen.
- Support from the Top. Above all, none of this will happen or be successful without solid leadership support. And that is committed leadership support that will deal with any political fallout, the noise around the organization about renegade ops, and the desire of the control freaks to try and control. Without this, the initiative is as good as dead.
I hope it's clear that acting like a start-up isn't about simply wishing for change, or decreeing it from on high. People won't (usually) emerge by themselves to do this - those who want this experience will almost always go somewhere else to get it.
No, it's about specific actions and commitments that you can make to embed, encourage and drive this behavior.
The soul of many large organizations in many different sectors depends on it.