Should Established Organizations' Be Aiming For A Startup Mentality?

Is a startup mentality the best way to embrace innovation?


The startup mentality is a legendary and elusive goal for many working in the world of innovation. It is a set of attitudes and cultures which have consistently produced highly successful innovation, and so, understandably, many larger companies aspire to maintain this atmosphere across their business. In a letter to his shareholders, Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos, put the organization's success down to the fact the company has always operated as if it were 'Day 1'. "Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death," he said. "And that is why it is always Day 1."

Is the startup mentality something that big organizations should be aiming to recreate in order to embrace innovation? We spoke with three of our speakers ahead of their presentations at our Chief Innovation Officer summit in London, this April 25 & 26.

Zoë Regent, Director of Innovation & Business Development at Save The Children

A startup approach has its challenges for big organizations. Agile and lean - which big organizations have adopted, do not lead to a substitute for a five-year business plan stage gate around decision making so need to be adapted and evolved to meet each organisations specific needs.

But fundamentally a startup mentality is a culture, it's all about people not process. It’s about bringing in a team who really care, and understand the impact of culture and a drive to succeed. The all hands on deck mentality, if there's litter on the floor, someone will pick it up even if it's not their job. This type of environment breeds innovation. In startups, you can make the assumption that everyone feels responsible for business growth, and in big businesses you can lose that. Startups have focus, fear, and urgency, and the relentless pursuit of something brilliant. These are all things that big businesses should aim to emulate.

Dr Tammy Watchorn, Head of Innovation at National Services, NHS Scotland

I think there's definite merit in it but I'm not sure how easy it is to do in reality for big complex organizations. We have tried to adapt some of the methods suggested in Kotter's XLR8, but it's hard to shift people away from needing KPIs and progress reports. For example, I'm often asked to demonstrate the 'benefits' or 'health outcomes' of what I do which can be really hard. I tend to be very much at the early stages of facilitating around problems and ideas, getting new collaborations off the ground prototyping. All of these will hopefully lead to health outcomes but it could easily be two years before an idea is developed and adopted into BAU and starts to demonstrate the benefits (and I will have long left the process by then).

I also think there is a risk in adopting the startup mentality in that this is often done within one team (ie. a new team set up with the permissions to act as a startup ) so the innovations, thinking, way of working, etc. become siloed, something that's done 'over there' and can exclude or easily disengage the rest of the organization.

For me, it's all about creating a shift in how we work as an organization, so innovation becomes part and parcel of what we ALL do, part of our culture, and therefore becomes sustainable.

Parul Kaul-Green, Head of Innovation and M&A, AXA UK & Ireland Group

In my opinion, it is horses for courses!

Large organizations such as IBM, Google, Microsoft have funded innovation through their research labs. In financial services, employees in large banks have created innovative hedge fund strategies and trading instruments. Blythe Masters created CDS while at JPM and my alma mater Citibank created Negotiable Certificates of Deposit.

They have developed them by attracting industry-leading talent and nurturing them by providing them with funding and infrastructure to innovate.

In a similar vein, I remember reading CBInsights founder Anand Sanwal’s interview where he shared his story of building and growing his startup. As his company grew, he had to put in policies, procedures and all the other 'governance' tools so that his employees had clarity on guiding principles and core philosophies.

I would suggest that for innovation to succeed it is crucial to bring in curious, open-minded, diverse, collaborative, and courageous people together and give them infrastructure and opportunity to experiment and scale.

Follow the debate at our Chief Innovation Officer summit in London, April 25 & 26.

Collaborate to innovate

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