tall trees are like big companies that started with their startup roots

Tapping the Startup Roots of Your Big Organization

By Eric Johnson

Many organizations become saddled with bureaucracy over time, which is a natural evolution of complexity and the incorporation of controls to manage risks within the business. However, many businesses started from much smaller entities, where communication was easier and productivity achieved with far fewer people and assets. Often, it is heard that large businesses want to “tap into their startup roots” which is often code for fast execution, swift decision-making, and quick recovery from errors or issues. While it is absolutely possible to re-introduce the “start-up” culture into your business, it involves a mindset shift from one of top-down regulation to one that empowers employees to make decisions and execute on behalf of the customer.

1. Develop an atmosphere clarifying risk and reward

It’s been idealized that the role of the CEO is essentially that of “Chief People Motivator” – the one whose goal is to maximize employee potential in order to maximize shareholder returns. This often incorporates motivating aspects such as strategic direction, individual and organizational incentives, and other aspects that directionally apply the personnel resources of the organization to fulfill customer needs. Fully maximizing this requires setting expectations around risk and reward within both the strategic and day-to-day aspects of the business. In our experience, we have observed that employees are most willing to “go above and beyond” when they understand the payoffs for undertaking activities that require independent thought and immediate decision making. Furthermore, this extends into both identifying and conducting strategic initiatives outside of the normal instruction identified by management for completion. By identifying and communicating those areas of the business that are most impacted by the potential for independent decision-making, managers can create guidelines around these types of decisions. This sets up the structure for individual employees to be motivated to take on those tasks that will benefit the organization, while reducing the fear of failure, through action-review, root-cause analysis, and shared discussion around possible solutions.

2. Incorporate the ideals of Continuous Improvement

Once the risk and reward system is developed and adequately applied across identified activities, managers should look to invoke a system of Continuous Improvement within their group. This creates the ownership over processes that drive employees to solve problems they identify both quickly and confidently. An organization can begin with an overall diagnostic of the processes in scope, with the aim to understand exactly “where are we?” This is an intensive undertaking, requiring the organization to ask tough questions and to look inward in identifying those aspects and decisions within the business that reduce the potential to perform at the maximum level. Once this is done, the group can undertake workshops and activities to remove the identified barriers to excellence and develop the processes that most accurately and efficiently meet customer expectations. With the in-scope processes identified and non-value-added activities removed, the group can now develop and implement the periodic monitoring against designated KPIs and develop swift approaches to correct errors and shifts away from the mean.

3. Infuse the ideals of the customer throughout the organization

The most important aspect of the work of any organization is to meet the needs of the customer. During day-to-day activities, it is easy to lose sight of the “whys” behind the “dos”. It is here that we should maintain importance on capturing the ear of the customer – using customer care to gain insight into areas for improvement, and cascading these messages into group identification of solutions to meet expectations. Even in back office areas and shared services such as finance, HR, etc., the decisions made here can still directly influence how products and services are delivered to customers. By incorporating customer focus into day to day activities (and not just strategic) the message is driven down to front-line employees the importance of their impacts and can facilitate the ease of incorporating the startup mentality into those processes that are often key external activities.

Every organization wants to ideally encourage its people to be “self-starters”: to be able to shift quickly to accommodate changing market forces and to make accurate decisions without management explicit direction, that are aligned to the interests of the business. Embracing a startup mentality within the business, while requiring effort, can release the inner ingenuity that drives employees to approach challenges with vigor and enthusiasm – which good for the business, the customers, and ultimately the employees themselves.


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