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How Major Corporations Can (and Should) Think Like Startups

Larger companies are investing in ways to imitate a startup environment. Here’s why that’s a smart move.

“Wow! Look at your mural — you guys really are like a startup.”

I hear this at least a few times a week. Whenever we have guests to the office, they first thing they notice is the giant colorful mural that runs the length of the office. It’s not prospective employees or investors who get most excited, however — it’s our customers.

Our customers are big, global 1000 businesses who tend to suffer from the slowness and drudgery that can come with hierarchy and having 10,000+ employees, and we sell them people analytics that help them to be more like startups. By knowing who their best people are and how they work together, our customers can respond to challenges quickly and effectively, like they were much smaller.

Our solution is only a small part of the picture. More and more, I’m seeing large organizations investing in multiple areas to try and be more like startups. From office planning to flexible employee benefits to silly perks, big corporations are trying to keep up.

But are these really the things that make startups so effective? Google didn’t become the company it is today because they did their employees’ laundry. Facebook didn’t get to over a billion users because of wall art. These things may be part of the lore, but they are not the differentiating factors.

Instead, it’s how startups attack problems and mobilize talent that make them unique. It’s being able to focus single-mindedly on one problem that allowed Salesforce.com to become the king of CRM. It was a reputation for hiring brilliant people that made Google such a desirable place to work.

Large companies have their own DNA. Sometimes, that DNA has existed for over a hundred of years. But DNA can mutate, and through careful modification, it’s possible to make a big, old-school organization a little bit more like a startup. Through our work with organizations of all different sizes, here are a few things we think that large companies can do to be more like their smaller competitors:

Create Space to Incubate New Ideas

Startups fail. A lot. Every day you have a new idea, bring it to the field, have it shot down, and iterate. Successful startups are the culmination of hundreds of thousands of hours of trial and error. From sales to product development to customer service, these organizations use failure to learn and improve their offerings as a result. Large organizations have the reputation of doing the exact opposite; they reward taking the safe path as opposed to the one with greater potential reward. They discipline mistakes as opposed to institutionalizing what’s learned.

Large organizations wanting to be more like startups need to give their employees the chance to fail safely. This can be as simple as letting salespeople try their own techniques, and giving them time to share what worked or what didn’t, or it could be as in-depth as creating a full blown incubator. Regardless of the scale, make sure you’re helping employees learn through doing. That’s the only way to make real change.

Recruit and Cultivate Top-Tier Talent

Ask any employee at a successful startup what their favorite part of the job is, and they will tell you it’s the people they work with. Because they are so small, startups feel the pull of every addition to their team, both good or bad. A dear friend once told me that people don’t leave jobs, they leave bad bosses and co-workers. Great startups believe this, and only hire people who make the whole team better.

One of the best companies I have seen do this is Context Media, based out of Chicago. Despite a commitment to staggering growth (Context made a pledge alongside Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to add 600 jobs over the next few years), they are incredibly selective for each and every hire. It allows them to work at a pace and level of skill that helps them run laps around the competition.

Recruit the Best Athlete, Not the Best Expert

While looking for the best people, don’t get too hung up on finding the person with the most expertise. Sometimes hiring effective generalists and having them figure it out (while getting the proper support, of course) can be more effective in situations of ambiguity or uncertainty. It also certainly beats waiting six months to fill a role.

Connect Decision-Makers With Influencers

In smaller startups, the decision-makers are in the office day to day and can model appropriate situational behaviors. In larger organizations, it’s harder to influence the group this way as there are simply too many people working on too many things across too many places. Knowing who your organization’s influencers are is critical. These people set the cultural tone, have their fingers on the pulse of the organization, and can help or hinder every new initiative. Always have these people on speed-dial and your big company will feel a whole lot smaller.

Zachary Johnson is the CEO and co-founder of Syndio, an enterprise people analytics company based in Chicago. Syndio helps large organizations use network science to systematically measure intangible aspects of employee-to-employee communication like trust, information sharing, and collaboration and to use this knowledge to dramatically improve talent management, innovation, and... (read more)

How Major Corporations Can (and Should) Think Like Startups

Larger companies are investing in ways to imitate a startup environment. Here’s why that’s a smart move.

“Wow! Look at your mural — you guys really are like a startup.”

I hear this at least a few times a week. Whenever we have guests to the office, they first thing they notice is the giant colorful mural that runs the length of the office. It’s not prospective employees or investors who get most excited, however — it’s our customers.

Our customers are big, global 1000 businesses who tend to suffer from the slowness and drudgery that can come with hierarchy and having 10,000+ employees, and we sell them people analytics that help them to be more like startups. By knowing who their best people are and how they work together, our customers can respond to challenges quickly and effectively, like they were much smaller.

Our solution is only a small part of the picture. More and more, I’m seeing large organizations investing in multiple areas to try and be more like startups. From office planning to flexible employee benefits to silly perks, big corporations are trying to keep up.

But are these really the things that make startups so effective? Google didn’t become the company it is today because they did their employees’ laundry. Facebook didn’t get to over a billion users because of wall art. These things may be part of the lore, but they are not the differentiating factors.

Instead, it’s how startups attack problems and mobilize talent that make them unique. It’s being able to focus single-mindedly on one problem that allowed Salesforce.com to become the king of CRM. It was a reputation for hiring brilliant people that made Google such a desirable place to work.

Large companies have their own DNA. Sometimes, that DNA has existed for over a hundred of years. But DNA can mutate, and through careful modification, it’s possible to make a big, old-school organization a little bit more like a startup. Through our work with organizations of all different sizes, here are a few things we think that large companies can do to be more like their smaller competitors:

Create Space to Incubate New Ideas

Startups fail. A lot. Every day you have a new idea, bring it to the field, have it shot down, and iterate. Successful startups are the culmination of hundreds of thousands of hours of trial and error. From sales to product development to customer service, these organizations use failure to learn and improve their offerings as a result. Large organizations have the reputation of doing the exact opposite; they reward taking the safe path as opposed to the one with greater potential reward. They discipline mistakes as opposed to institutionalizing what’s learned.

Large organizations wanting to be more like startups need to give their employees the chance to fail safely. This can be as simple as letting salespeople try their own techniques, and giving them time to share what worked or what didn’t, or it could be as in-depth as creating a full blown incubator. Regardless of the scale, make sure you’re helping employees learn through doing. That’s the only way to make real change.

Recruit and Cultivate Top-Tier Talent

Ask any employee at a successful startup what their favorite part of the job is, and they will tell you it’s the people they work with. Because they are so small, startups feel the pull of every addition to their team, both good or bad. A dear friend once told me that people don’t leave jobs, they leave bad bosses and co-workers. Great startups believe this, and only hire people who make the whole team better.

One of the best companies I have seen do this is Context Media, based out of Chicago. Despite a commitment to staggering growth (Context made a pledge alongside Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to add 600 jobs over the next few years), they are incredibly selective for each and every hire. It allows them to work at a pace and level of skill that helps them run laps around the competition.

Recruit the Best Athlete, Not the Best Expert

While looking for the best people, don’t get too hung up on finding the person with the most expertise. Sometimes hiring effective generalists and having them figure it out (while getting the proper support, of course) can be more effective in situations of ambiguity or uncertainty. It also certainly beats waiting six months to fill a role.

Connect Decision-Makers With Influencers

In smaller startups, the decision-makers are in the office day to day and can model appropriate situational behaviors. In larger organizations, it’s harder to influence the group this way as there are simply too many people working on too many things across too many places. Knowing who your organization’s influencers are is critical. These people set the cultural tone, have their fingers on the pulse of the organization, and can help or hinder every new initiative. Always have these people on speed-dial and your big company will feel a whole lot smaller.

See Also: Networking Advice from Blair Thomas, Co-Founder, First American Merchant Funding

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Zachary Johnson is the CEO and co-founder of Syndio, an enterprise people analytics company based in Chicago. Syndio helps large organizations use network science to systematically measure intangible aspects of employee-to-employee communication like trust, information sharing, and collaboration and to use this knowledge to dramatically improve talent management, innovation, and... (read more)

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