Think Small to Think Big: How Large Companies Can Innovate Like a Startup

When you think about disruptive innovation, you might envision a team of developers huddled around laptops in a pizza-laden, dimly lit garage. Or maybe a vibrant, passionate group of young professionals marking up the walls and windows of their tiny corner of a busy co-working space. Whether they include developers, engineers or marketers, these pictures seem to share one commonality: small teams. 

Let's face it: If lean startups are viewed as a bastion for innovation, larger and established corporations are usually regarded as the barren wasteland for it. Their workdays are often portrayed as highly structured and restricting, and their processes as often stringent and stifling. They're simply not viewed as innovative.

In article for Forbes, Chunka Mai, a best-selling author and entrepreneur, relays a story about two highly successful, established friends who abandoned their executive jobs, (gladly) accepted pay cuts, and relocated their lives and families just to work for budding startups. Why, you ask? 

Mai contends,

“Like too many of their peers, these smart and savvy veterans were stymied in their efforts to get their companies to innovate. They resigned themselves to a conventional wisdom that has taken root in recent decades: that startups are destined to out-innovate big, established businesses.”

While this may be the conventional picture of how innovation occurs, it most certainly does not have to be universally true. Large companies across the world continue to innovate and reshape the world we live in every day. Just consider how different the business and technology landscape would look without companies like Apple, Google or Amazon.

These companies are regarded as some of the most innovative on the planet. However, it's not because they avoid startup culture and practices, but it's because they embrace it. Innovation should be actively pursued and pushed to the forefront in our organizations, especially if we run a larger, more traditional company or corporation.

Don't Forget to Dream

Many of the most innovative startups I've worked with are founded on ideas that people believe are not possible to achieve in the present. These founders are daring, refusing to believe their vision cannot be achieved.

In my opinion, many larger, established corporations could do with a little extra dose of this mentality. I'm not calling for you to abandon your day-to-day practices or to destroy the structured processes that have driven you to your current level of success. But I am asking you to dream a little. Set aside the daily tasks and the focus on where you are currently, and begin thinking about where you could be. Mai explains,

“It is important to periodically start with a clean sheet of paper and think about key trends and looming inventions, then envision how everything could come together to transform the business—without worrying about what people, capabilities and other assets have to be added or subtracted to become that perfect version of the business.”

But how can we do this?

1. Cultivate and Gather

Invite ideas from your team members on a frequent basis, and don't edit or refine them during the same brainstorming process. The key to cultivating innovative ideas is to make sure they aren't being evaluated as they're generated. This only ever stifles creativity in the long run. Create a message board or some other type of easily accessible forum where employees can share their feedback or suggest new ideas.

2. Think Smaller

Being part of a department of hundreds or even thousands can often cause employees to feel as though their contributions are insignificant. Finding ways to let individual employees work in smaller teams, even if only for smaller amounts of time, can go a long way to generating new ideas. I know a handful of companies do this by regularly scheduling “disruption days,” where teams from all departments can get together to work on any kind of project they want. 

3. Don't Be Afraid to Be Wrong 

One of the biggest failings of larger businesses is their fear of being wrong. Remember that innovation starts with a vision, but it's hardly predictable. For every successful product launch, there are a vast number of failures. 

Mai explains, 

“By definition, disruptive innovations deal with future scenarios that are hard to read and where the right strategy is not clear; the right strategy has to emerge over time.”

Failure itself can be positive for your company provided you learn from it. Confirming our ideas through failure will not only improve the final product but will build team trust and employee confidence as well. Further, larger corporations often have more resources available to them than startups and small businesses, making failure a much less risky proposition. 

Innovation doesn't always have to come from the small guys. But what separates the innovative large companies from the rest of the field is their extended commitment to keeping things small and personal. Small teams, small groups, small meetings and small ideas that snowball and become the next big thing. If we can help your big business think smaller to think bigger, please let us know!

Al Eidson is the owner of Eidson & Partners, a business and marketing strategy consultancy, and a founder of SparkLabKC, an early-stage startup accelerator program in Kansas City. He's an expert in taking products to market and has launched more than 220 new products and ventures through his career. He's also proud of killing off a great many problematic products before they hit the market. His vision involves meaningful and lasting products through innovation. 

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