A startup is almost the perfect inverse of the enterprise.
One has relatively infinite resources with decades of learned behavior; the other has limited financial runway and a blank sheet of organizational paper on which to invent culture. There’s a symbiotic opportunity here that is way underutilized.
If one buys into the idea that innovation happens disproportionately in smaller companies, then the longevity of the enterprise is tied to its ability to partner with and learn from these upstarts. It will often feel foreign, counterculture and even haphazard but, “If the world is changing faster outside than it is inside then you’re dead and you didn’t know it yet.” – Jack Welch
Below are five things that may be moving faster outside your Fortune 500 than inside.
Attracting and Retaining Young Talent
Young companies tend to attract young talent. You could argue young companies tend to have younger founders and they relate better to younger talent. True, but there’s more. Startups and growth stage companies are advantaged by having invented their culture recently (and it’s probably values-driven with a strong sense of purpose). They’ve usually started out with different communication tools (probably not email), and thought differently about how space promotes productivity (not a cubicle in sight). Look at startups to find experimental theories on organizational behavior and ask yourself, what outmoded paradigms are costing us the next generation of talent?
Getting a Lot Done with a Little
There’s an adage in the startup world that “Money makes you stupid.” An abundance of resources, whether they be financial or human capital, creates bloat and inefficiency. Excellent research, including this article, has been done around the benefits of small teams. Smaller groups form stronger relationships, communicate better and ultimately get more done. The agility needed to react to complex problems is more present in small, cross-functional teams. Gen. (ret.) Stanley McChrystal details how he pioneered this philosophy while fighting Al Qaida in Iraq in his book Team of Teams. The most well-resourced military in the world was losing to a ragtag incursion until they exchanged their hierarchical command structure for small independent teams that operated with greater autonomy. It was the only way to keep pace with a decentralized enemy in a complex environment fueled by social media. The enterprise battlefield is not dissimilar. Efficiency is an old paradigm. Agility is the new imperative.
Application of Modern Tech
What would your technology ecosystem look like if you were to blow it up and start over today? Maybe a lot like the startups in your community unburdened by 20+ years of legacy software. In real life, one can’t blow it up, but there are lessons to be learned by observing how these companies utilize mobile first, highly integrated, cloud-powered applications to manage benefits, employee onboarding, employee engagement, communication and critical workflows. Even if their slick, off-the-shelf solutions aren’t quite scalable to your Goliath-sized organization, the intentionality around how user experience drives productivity should be observed.
Taking Calculated Risks
Entrepreneurship is an exercise in calculated risk taking. For young companies, every bet is a big bet, and successful ones make those decisions quickly and decisively. They set a vision and execute as if their life depends on it, because it does. Large companies get held back from focused execution by low trust between teams, pork-filled stakeholder buy-in, and the relentless quarterly earnings report. Leaders are responsible for prioritizing the objectives, matchmaking a capable team and fearlessly allocating resources toward the solution. Great companies, large and small, pick the right battles and win them decisively.
Business Model Experimentation
One of the points made in The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen is the difficulty incumbent organizations have disrupting their current revenue streams in the pursuit of new ones. The danger is someone else will. Young companies have everything to gain by experimenting with new business models. Partnering with them can accelerate exploration into new types of customer interactions. Technology enabled customer experiences that weren’t possible five years ago may provide an entrepreneur all the opportunity they need to steal market share. Which startups in your industry are attracting serious investors? This kind of traction indicates vulnerability. Played right, it could be an opportunity.
The question remains, as an enterprise, how does one get involved with the startup community in an authentic way that’s beneficial to both sides? It requires clear intentions, a long-term approach and a lot of care not to overfeed a starving child. A deeper dive on this topic of successful partnerships with startups will be the focus of my next blog post.