Can elephants dance?
What do solopreneurs have that your company can’t compete with? Why are Youtube stars coming up with million dollar launches for products that would normally emerge from your design department? In this era of unprecedented change, it feels like all incumbents, big and small, are vulnerable to two college dropouts in a garage.
Why? The work done by David Aycan of IDEO on the subject of Creative Difference gives some clues. He identifies six qualities that build an environment creativity. Guess what? They are qualities that startups usually have in spades.
Established companies need to consciously adopt these characteristics if they are to fend off the smaller competition.
Those two kids in a garage may be dreaming about Lamborghini days, but the spark behind their creation is an all consuming sense that their idea will change world for the better.
What’s easy for a startup needs to be done consciously by an incumbent company. If you don’t have a purpose that your customers, investors and team can’t rally around, you are rudderless.
Does your company still have that drive? Why does it exist? To provide value to shareholders? Yawn!
Tesla is freeing us from reliance on fossil fuels. SpaceX is developing the capacity to colonize space. In both cases, the profit motive is not mentioned although it does sit silently in the background. The particulars on how the companies will achieve their purposes is not dwelled on either. Instead the purposes are framed around the improvement they can bring.
2. Looking out
The second characteristic is the ability to look outward for solutions, inspiration, feedback from customers and technological changes.
Startups don’t spend a lot of time waiting for another department in the organization to neatly wrap their part of the process – it’s all on them.
They don’t reject ideas simply because they’ve been tried before, or because they were invented somewhere else. That’s because they haven’t tried anything before, or invented anything yet!
For the small, brand new company, everything is an experiment. Established companies are often reluctant to experiment. Before embarking on a new product line or changing a process, the established hierarchy will often expect an ironclad justification and a thorough plan before funds are allocated. As bureaucracy sets in, failure is no longer tolerated. Professionalism means hitting targets.
It’s hard to develop an us-vs-them mentality when “us” is two people in a garage. It’s a lot easier to take the time to engage with customers, suppliers and the like when there is no internal bureaucracy to contend with.
Here again, the one- or two-person team has a clear edge over a large company. It’s easy to feel like a cog in a machine when you work in a large company.
Lacking the funds to bet on a fully featured product, or a broad product line, a startup will produce a minimum viable product. This limitation is rewarded with feedback at an early stage.
An incumbent might produce a line of products only to find that none of them resonate in the
Use your advantages
It’s easy to feel that the nimble startup can beat you at your own game, but don’t forget that the game they are playing is to replace you, not stay small forever. They want the advantages you have. Experience, connections, assembled talent, history, capital, customers, equipment, recognition – the list goes on. Your response is to harness those advantages.
Lead with purpose
The first step is identifying your company’s purpose. Your company exists and has a history. What purpose is served by what your company already does?
Practice articulating your view of the purpose, vision and mission of your company. Engage with your team and your customers to see if what your purpose makes sense to them. Learn from the feedback.
Once you have a purpose, mobilize your resources. Innovation is not free! You must invest the capacity of your team.
support an innovative culture
Give your team the time to look outside the company, through training, trade associations, and conferences. Let them explore adjacencies. If you are civil engineering company, what can be learned from a golf landscaper’s conference?
Give them the capacity to experiment. Let them form teams around these experiments. Also give them constraints – time, budget, alignment with purpose. Constraints are paradoxically liberating, as they lend focus to experimentation.
We put in a series of systems and a culture where the expectation is that if there’s an idea that someone’s passionate about, we put in a system to make it easy and fast and cheap for them to run an experiment.Intuit’s co-founder, Scott Cook
McKinsey & Company
Stay engaged with innovation
Stay abreast of not only the results of your team’s innovation efforts, but also the practice of innovation. Innovation is a process that inherently involves many failures. This can be disheartening. Your team needs to know you are in it with them – that you value the process, not just the result.
Yes, elephants can dance
When Lou Gerstner took the reins of IBM as CEO, his first impulse was the break the unwieldy giant up. He later described his decision to instead “teach the elephant to dance” as his most important decision in his career.
Being nimble, to dance, means focusing on innovation. Have a purpose, and invest in experimentation.
Photo by Vineet Nangia on Unsplash