burnt out lightbulb
Too many enterprises want it all: to be an established market leader, but with the buzz of a start-up PHOTO: Pixabay

Coca Cola recently closed its Founders start-up incubator, citing difficulties in combining start-ups and the corporation. 

No doubt a substantial investment to walk away from. But connecting innovation incubators, specialist R&D units and innovation teams into the wider workforce rarely meets with success. Such programs might have short term benefits, but it's difficult to make them sustainable.

Many a big business aspires to be an established market leader with the buzz of a start-up. Plenty of corporate vision statements proclaim innovation as a driving force in their business.

Yet the innovation agenda remains aspirational rather than real. All too frequently it gets no further than a statement of intent. Even with significant investment, there is no guarantee the desired change will happen.

What Separates the Disruptors from the Disruptees

How you behave as an entrepreneur is entirely dependent on your environment. When you're starting from scratch, there are few rules, few processes — and everything represents opportunity. Whether you succeed or not is another matter, it's all green fields. 

When you are working in a landscape heavy in rules and regulations, behaviors become modified, subdued. 

Market leaders have more at stake than start-ups. They represent the status quo, but they want to be seen as disrupting and challenging it at the same time. 

Innovation is unique, just as culture is unique. You can't 'program' either by repeating what others have done. Every organization has its own very specific circumstances. What you have to do is to incorporate these circumstances and the abilities and experiences of the people into your innovation programs, not take someone else's formula or workflow or processes and force it onto your people. 

That's not say that innovation doesn't need a process: once you uncover your unique approach to innovative ways of working and new ideas, you need an innovation management framework to work within. But the culture itself, the engagement with the program — no.

The Enemies of a Start-Up Mentality

Implementing a new culture or way of working is doomed to fail when developed as a top-down initiative. Parachuting a culture into existing culture can work, but it's all about the critical mass. If the numbers stack up, if you have more risk-takers and disrupters than you have blockers, then it can work. 

But large companies are complex machines. They react slowly. And most crucially for innovation, large companies rely on the whim of middle managers who create the working conditions.

Dave Snowden, chief scientific officer at Cognitive Edge, cites in this presentation that new employees change their personal stories within three months of joining an organization to match the dominant narrative of the people around them. 

What this means in terms of building an entrepreneurial culture is that it won't survive in a dominant culture of process, hierarchy and rules. We adapt to survive in this new environment.

This can be exemplified by middle management, that relic of the hierarchies of the industrial revolution. Middle management was largely a means of ensuring a largely uneducated and relatively unskilled workforce could keep working. 

I'm not saying that middle managers are bad. Some are inspiring. The problem is we are dependent on them, on their expectations, on their workplace politics, on the pressures they experience from above. This is often at odds with an entrepreneurial culture. Add in complex and rigid business processes, and we create this world that is the polar opposite of a start-up.

Can You Build an Entrepreneurial Culture in an Enterprise? 

So if large organizations are unintentionally set up to kill innovation, how do you embed an entrepreneurial culture?

Essentially, you have to stop looking for outside solutions — and look to what you have inside and use it. Release the entrepreneurial instincts of the people you already have. 

Any kind of innovation or cultural change program needs to start from the bottom up. It needs to begin with the people who live and breathe these values. Crucially, it needs to pull people in rather than push messages out. 

It needs to have senior level endorsement. But beware — setting specific expectations will doom any entrepreneurial culture to failure. The essence of a culture has to build from a grassroots level, it needs to be organic, built with the people who already embody the culture that you are trying to create. 

These people don't have to be innovators per se, after all, we're all capable of innovating given the opportunities. They just need to be the people who are good at finding opportunities — people who naturally network, influence others and who reach out beyond silos and tasks. What they do need is support to overcome the barriers that big business inevitably throws in their way.

Get Ready for Chaos

One last thing: if you want innovation, you'll have to learn to embrace chaos. It's disruption to the norms of work that force us to think differently and produce spontaneous responses to challenges. How much innovation is due to serendipity rather than due to process? How chaotic you go depends on your type of business and how you go about managing it.  

Conveniently, we already have the perfect tool for both disrupting and channeling chaos into innovation: Peer to peer knowledge flow. Creating a collaborative environment, a safe place for conversations, for experimenting, for dismantling the norms is where you can facilitate, contain and exploit chaos.