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What do big established organisations have to learn from small start-ups?

When it comes to agility, it’s common practice to cast large organisations as being monolithic, unadaptable and slow-moving and smaller businesses as more nimble, fluid and responsive. One is an ocean-liner, the other a jet-ski.

This is, of course, a simplistic view. Just as small organisations aren’t always quick on their feet, it’s by no means impossible for larger businesses to maintain a dynamism which sees them making quick decisions and continually reinventing themselves. There’s no clear divide, as Steve Jobs pointed out when he proudly described Apple as “the biggest start-up on the planet".

What is clear, however, is that all businesses can continually learn, and it’s an interesting exercise to look at the enviable characteristics of different-sized organisations and consider which may be transferrable to and achievable within your own.

In the first of this two-part blog, we’ll consider what lessons large, complex organisations can learn from start-ups. In part two the tables will be turned.

Be decisive
Whilst success brings the amassing of envious resources and power it often comes wrapped in undesirable, baffling bureaucracy, which stifles creativity, innovation and responsiveness. Many of our clients who work for large, long-established organisations are currently looking for ways to revolutionise their decision-making processes. Better decision-making processes don’t guarantee better decisions, but they do increase the likelihood of decisions being made. It doesn’t take a mathematical genius to work out the probability that the more decisions made, the more right decisions there will be.

This faster pace goes hand in hand with a culture that embraces risk and, as in the case of Facebook, encourages its employees to adopt the attitude “done is better than perfect”. This iterate quickly attitude prevails amongst the digital generation, and is key to their ability to dive into action in the time it takes a larger company to co-ordinate everyone’s availability to have a meeting about the idea.

Customer creativity
Smaller organisations often have a genuine, close relationship with their customers.  They leverage this, seeing their buyers and end-users as talent rather than targets. They involve them in solutions, working alongside them to innovate product and service design and they engage them in marketing, rewarding them for their efforts. Sometimes they even formally recruit them.

All too often large organisations spend the majority of their time looking inward, when they should be spending 90% of their time looking outside the business at customers, competitors and new ways of thinking.

“Yoof” got talent
Invest time in finding out about Gen Y and Gen Z – what will be their needs – how will these affect your business? How will you be an employer of choice and make the most of what they have to offer? (why not start with our blog piece!)

Innovate new ways to align your organisation with young talent. Many larger organisations are creating ways to support start-ups, not from a distance, but up close, and for mutual benefit. Back in 2010 PepsiCo launched the inaugural PepsiCo10 initiative – an incubator programme bringing their brands into direct contact with innovative digital start-ups to create marketing programmes. Another example is Google’s Campus - a co-working space in the heart of London aiming to provide start-ups with everything they need, from inspiring working space and free high-speed internet to mentoring and networking opportunities. There’s a lot to be said for bringing your people into contact with start-up mentality – entrepreneurial and innovative attitudes are contagious!

Value your values
When a business grows, keeping the entrepreneurial spirit, values and practices that made them successful in the first place can be a real challenge.

Smaller organisations often have a strong value-led, family feel extending to both employees and customers. This often goes hand in hand with a flatter structure, open involvement in decision-making and a free-flow of information.

Take a good honest look at your organisation’s journey. Has the role of your company’s values changed? Have the values themselves changed as the company has got older? If the answer is yes then it might be time to go back to some basics. Sound core values, that are well communicated and influence behavior, should act as consistent criteria for testing any proposed changes - the perfect sounding board.

Innovate, Innovate, Innovate
Large companies are full of sneaky corners that are great to hide problems and failings in. This isn’t so much the case in smaller organisations, where problems tend to quickly find their way out into the open, where they have to be dealt with and innovated around. This is no bad thing.

Entrepreneurial organisations don’t fear failure, they see it as inevitable and, though perhaps not desirable, certainly a key part of the learning process.

Cultural shifts can’t take place overnight, but is there anything preventing you from starting a revolution in one area of your business? Allow them to think differently, dress differently and work differently. Revolutions are often contagious.