From 14th November, a worldwide programme of events is set to begin in celebration of Global Entrepreneurship Week, showcasing the amazing work being carried out by business founders.
One of the exciting facets of business is the ability of people to invent new ideas, markets, products and services that can become transformational in our own lives. Looking back over the last decades of my own career, I truly believe we’re currently experiencing a renaissance era for entrepreneurship. In the USA alone, more than 27 million people are launching or already running a new business, and these fledgling founders have a bevy of role models to draw inspiration from. Whether it’s Snapchat founder Evan Spiegel, Arianna Huffington of the Huffington Post, Elon Musk and his range of diverse, cutting edge businesses or the seemingly omnipresent Mark Zuckerberg, many of today’s leading entrepreneurs have transcended the business pages to become household names.
These founders are regularly commended for their innovation – their success has hinged on disrupting a market, and many have transformed not just their sectors but also our day-to-day lives for the better. This hasn’t been lost across the street in the large corporate world either.
In recent years many corporates have been quick to shout about their own ‘innovation strategies’, such as accelerating investment in research and development, establishing an investment fund approach or working closely with nimble start-ups to get early sight of new tech and working practices. Corporate Venturing has become a new mantra, but stepping back, how many of these initiatives have actually revolutionised a sector or the ways we operate, either in the office or at home?
Sadly, my experience is that in many companies, innovation is still nothing but a buzzword. The lack of role models for how to consistently achieve significant change within a corporate means that many of the corporate innovation initiatives I see today are either half-hearted or engineered for PR attention. A corporate cannot be seen to be doing nothing, so a programme is established. These programmes are often secluded in one corner of the business, lack leadership or authority from board level and rather than spark a culture of innovation, simply limp along and then flicker out and die over time. Why is this, when one would think a cash-rich corporate would have far more weapons in its armoury to drive new ideas than a cash-strapped start-up founded by someone who wants to change the world?
To my mind, there are a number of issues at play.
Crucially, a large number of business leaders simply don’t understand what innovation is nor what they expect it to deliver. For many it sounds fantastic during a presentation, potentially leading to market-leading sales and success, but there’s an uncertainty of what it actually means in reality for a business. Innovation is not an immediate asset to add to your company toolkit or balance sheet, something you can decide to invest in and predict a return on investment from. True innovation is also the close relation of disruption, whether that’s disrupting how we do things or whether it’s more fundamental than that and challenges why our business even exists. Yet innovation is often spoken of in glowing terms as a wonderful thing to achieve, while in the same breath disruption is a dark force to be dealt with and defended against. In my mind, you cannot have one without the other and must be prepared for the consequences.
Secondly, real change takes time to develop, and many initiatives you embark on lead to nothing. After all, if creating new things were so easy, everyone would be doing it! The fact that they aren’t shows how hard it is. Perseverance is a key attribute here and one of the facets often attributed to an entrepreneur is their ability to bounce back from a failure, learn from it and try again in a different way. Yet often in the corporate world, there is little appetite for failure and unsuccessful ventures can easily be criticised as a distraction and a waste of time and money, particularly when the rest of the organisation is working so hard to create that money in the first place. That gets innovation a bad name. In my experience, setting expectations for what you expect to see delivered can help avoid this. If you truly expect your innovation investment to create a life-changing new service or product or business, you may be disappointed. However, innovation doesn’t always need to disrupt an entire business model. Some of the most effective innovations I have seen are small tweaks – new developments that layer on top of existing systems and processes rather than replacing them entirely. As you layer upon layer, step back after a year or two and often the change you then see is dramatic, yet each step along the way did not feel revolutionary.
A key point I would make is that a fundamental element of true corporate innovation involves unlocking the entrepreneurial leadership gene in your wider workforce. The first step in achieving that is to give your gifted employees the autonomy to cultivate ideas. Here at Hays, we enable our staff to act ‘like an owner’, allowing managers to implement their own innovative strategies for success and encouraging employees to introduce their own ideas. When we support that with a central team also looking at ideas and continually testing them in the business, we see real results. However, there must be an overarching theme that is crystal clear and defines what is the problem we are seeking to solve or area we are seeking to improve. Otherwise it is hard to differentiate between all the ideas and prioritise which ones we will push forward. It also means we need to internally adopt more of a “project” mentality as we seek to try new ideas, kill the failures quickly and build on and adapt the successful ones.
In business, introducing specific new products and services can often impact the bottom line, but more often than not real success comes from innovating our overall outlook and thought processes, in effect developing a new way of thinking about the business and trying things out. That’s a real skill, but its hugely powerful if you can cultivate it. Unfortunately, corporate innovation is too frequently obstructed by a lack of understanding, commitment, direction or integration, and merely miming innovation will never result in real change.
Those big business that refuse to recognise this will only continue following in the footsteps of entrepreneurs and smaller, more disruptive organisations that are causing sometimes drastic changes in their sector, rather than forging their own path. A lot has been written of the difficulties of a large, established and profitable business disrupting itself and I agree, it is difficult. However, a corporate often has far more resources to tackle these issues than a new start-up that is balancing fund-raising with recruitment with tech development with marketing with all the other distractions involved in the early days of a new company. If that isn’t motivation enough, business and global relations are now entering significantly uncertain times, and many businesses will be facing a ‘do-or-die’ phase in which those who don’t commit to driving real change will not just be left behind, but could find themselves out of the race altogether.
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