We come across lots of businesses at Undercurrent who express an interest in being more like a start-up. It’s hardly surprising. It seems like every week there is another new success story about a lean team of smart and highly passionate Ivy League grads or hipsters. They’ll develop an amazing digital product out of a shared work space, grow an inordinate demand for it, secure investment, and sell it for millions (well, some do at least). What business wouldn’t want to recreate similar growth and success? The difficult question, is how?
Start-ups tend to be built on a new and entirely different cultural operating system than more traditional, established businesses, without the legacy policies, processes and organizational structures created to meet the needs of the industrial economy. Some businesses understand that their culture needs a software update, but implementing it can be slow and challenging.
Many of the successful start-ups I have come across not only encourage their team to feel empowered to make decisions and drive the business forward, they demand it. They don’t have an innovation officer because innovation is expected from everyone, at every level of the business. Job titles at companies like our friends @poppin are designed to be somewhat ambiguous because traditional titles are typically prohibitive, and pigeon-hole team members into defined roles that neglect their other skills and experience. The cultural DNA of start-ups are often carefully engineered so that the organization’s most valuable asset –their human talent– can be fully leveraged.
So what should a business looking to empower its organization focus on? Here are a number of considerations.
Empower your employees with individual agency
Twentieth century organizations were built to be centralized and highly regulated, but more and more companies are beginning to relinquish control and empower their teams with individual agency to great effect.
Netflix, the on-demand movie streaming service, have a no vacation or expenses policy. They ask their staff to act in accordance with a few simple guidelines, but ultimately task each individual with managing their own time off and expenditure. The result isn’t as chaotic as you might expect. In fact, it turns out that in many cases, empowering teams with flexibility and the authority to manage their own time can result in greater productivity. Google famously allow their employees to spend 20% of their time on developing their own ideas. It’s from this initiative that some of Google’s most popular products have been born.
Empowering employees with individual agency will ultimately result in a happier, more productive workforce. Giving your team the space and resources to explore their own ideas will lead to greater creativity and innovation. And allowing individuals the freedom to mould their work lives around their personal lives, especially in a world where boundaries between the two are blurring, will attract talent and increase retention.
Review the policies and habits that your organization adhere to, and question whether they’re effective, whether they can be improved or updated, or if they are needed at all. Find ways to provide your organization, or yourself in your own role, the time and space to develop new ideas. Cultivate a culture in which everything is in constant beta, and should be poked, prodded and refined all the time.
Define and pursue survivable risks
Risk is typically something reserved for the management team. Everyone else in an organization is too afraid of jeopardizing their job and tend to be uncomfortable with venturing into the unknown. At Undercurrent we talk a lot about survivable risk. It’s the lens through which we all assess decisions. If it's a risk the business can survive, we'll consider trying it out to see what happens. If not, the chances are the risk can be scaled down to a point in which it is survivable.
Ask yourself if your business is risk tolerant. Does it encourage or discourage risk? Could it be stifling new ideas and quashing potential wins? Spend some time mapping the types of risks people could and should be taking, and put some definition around the different levels; risks that anyone can take, risks that are encouraged but should be run by the management team, and risks reserved for the C-suite only. Make it clear to the organization that risk is not only encouraged, but expected.
Become an organization with a bias for action
Many a great idea fail to get off the ground due simply to inaction and deference. Concerns about authority to act or availability of resources often result in good ideas going untried, and yet a bias for action is a key factor for innovation. By way of example, consider William Kamkwamba; a Malawian boy who, at age 14 built, an electricity-generating windmill from spare parts to power his home. Discussing his windmill at TED in Arusha, he explained his story in simple terms: “I wanted to build a windmill, so I went the library after school, I read about how to make one, and I did it”. Kamkwamba did not seek permission, and he did not wait for someone else to provide his family with electricity, he took the initiative and did it himself.
Most start-ups are lean, usually because funding is limited. There is no room for inaction. Every task and conversation is oriented around making something happen. Seek to recruit people to your team and within your organization who get excited and make things. Incentivize and reward action. Make an example of people that take the initiative even when something has failed.
Every successful start-up will have its own unique formula - it’s own reasons for achieving growth. But almost all start-ups are empowering their employees with agency, encouraging their team to be bold and take survivable risks, and hiring talent with a bias for action. The result is that the force of the entire organization relentlessly pushes onwards and upwards, and gets smarter all the time. Corporate America, take note.
I’m going to leave you with an inspirational and wonderfully fitting quote by William Arthur Ward: “Blessed is he who sees the need, recognizes the responsibility and actively becomes the solution.”