Corporates, no, you don’t want to be a startup

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Corporates, no, you don’t want to be a startup

We want to operate like start-ups“. That’s what I keep hearing from many corporations in their attempt to fix their corporate innovation process. I believe corporations need to change or face extinction, that said, no, you surely don’t want to be a start-up. It’s funny how fast perceptions change. Six years ago, start-ups where those tiny companies run by a bunch of hippies out of California. Now, operating like a start-up, behaving like one, looking like one or even smelling like one, is so trendy, many corporates are eager to have something to do with it. As they say, “the grass is always greener on the other side“.

While corporations struggle with the current innovation pace, most start-ups can only dream of becoming a gigant. Each other envy what they can’t get, forgetting in the process, that they do have incredible strengths that make them unique and different. They use to say: “If you cry because the sun has gone out of your life, your tears will prevent you from seeing the stars.” – Tagore. I believe this is what’s happening to many companies.

Yes, start-ups are cool, young, energetic and fast (or at least should be). They are the toddlers of the business world. I love that adults want to retain certain attributes that toddlers display. Things like day dreaming, surprise, childhood wonder, lack of boundaries, etc. But still, I believe most adults don’t want to turn into kids. Dippers anyone?

Now, corporations should definitely try to retain some start-up behaviors but ditch others. Before going on start-up culture hunting mode, corporations should ask themselves, what are the problems they have. This is, of course, easier said than done. The easy road is to, go out, check what start-ups are doing and apply Cargo Cult, that is, lets introduce lean, agile, colorful office space, business canvas boards, etc. The problem with this is, it just doesn’t works like that. Most start-ups adopt specific frameworks because of specific restrictions. Actually, many of them will iterate through a huge array of methodologies as they grow and expand. Trying different things until they reach a subset that works for them.

Corporations take the brute-forcing approach. They’ll check what their competitors are doing and will replicate every single thing they get their hands on believing that if they apply this or that methodology, they’ll fix their problems. Needless to say, this is a big waste and most probably a big failure.

The first step should be to assess what’s broken and WHY. Once you think you’ve found the problem, dig deeper. You are only scratching the surface. Someone asked me recently how should a corporation do this. My answer? Talk with your employees. Yes, Alex, this is easy to say, but, what happens when your company employs 150.000 people across multiple geographies? Well, no problem, start small. Pick one geography, ideally the one where the top management lives in and then pick a group you want to start with. Such group shouldn’t be the smallest team nor the largest. You want to talk with a team that’s in the middle. Then spend time talking with them. Really talking with them. No survey sending, no feedback form, no suggestion emails. Go and sit next to them. Spend time with them. Have lunch with them. Work with them for a while.

Yes, I know, we don’t have time to do this. Well, I’m sorry to say then, that you’ll most probably fail. That’s exactly what start-ups learn early on. You want to make a living? You need to really really take the time to learn what the problem is. For most, specially action people like engineers or management, this is a waste of time. Sadly, life doesn’t has any short cuts. No matter what people think, life will end up catching with you if you try to outrun it.

Pulling the “we need to work more like a start-up” stunt is just that, it’s a shortcut. You look around, see someone doing something you desire and you try to steal it, replicate it or destroy it. It’s human behavior. In your greed to obtain the so desire benefit, you forget you’re not a kid, that you now weight 100Kg, that your flexibility is no where to be found and that even a jog will bring havoc to your heart.

No, trust me, you don’t want to be a start-up, you want to retain certain abilities, and to achieve that, you first need to learn how to walk, then jog, then run. Find your internal problems, then, and only then, look outside for inspiration.

With one eye fixed on the destination, there is only one left to guide you along the journey

Robin Sharma


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