Corporate leaders can encourage a startup mentality

Too often, corporate leaders hear the words “startup culture” and roll their eyes at images of airy offices with treehouses and dress codes that include flip-flops.

While that may have merit, it ignores the inherent advantages that a startup has in the marketplace — namely, the ability to solve specific problems for its customers and scale rapidly. Enterprise leaders may recognize the need for agility, but their cultures often lack the mechanics to support it.

Here’s a truth I’ve learned within my agency and our clients: innovation rarely stems from the C-suite. While leaders set the stage for a successful culture, innovative companies thrive on the creativity of their employees. Here are a few steps to drive change within your organization.

Recognize your two cultures

For better or worse, all corporations carry a legacy culture that can hinder the growth of new ideas. This legacy provides massive value — it’s what made the company successful to begin with, but it can allow inertia to overcome innovation.

Instilling that startup mentality requires a compelling reason for change. Many leaders try to emulate innovative brands like Google or 3M saying, “We give employees 20 percent of time to innovate,” without a cultural reason to do so.

Driving this change too quickly can break a culture — even the company. Leaders must find an incentive for a cultural shift, set a reasonable timeline and slowly blend innovative ideas into your legacy culture.

Reduce management barriers

S. Chris Edmonds recently wrote a great article on where the responsibility for promoting culture lies. Company leaders set the vision for culture, but it’s critical to hand employees the reins to foster ownership and accountability. At my digital product agency, 352 Inc., we took a radical step three years ago and completely removed management in favor of team-centric servant leaders.

Our small, cross-functional agile teams allow employees to work directly with clients, set their own production schedules and pursue disruptive ideas in a fail-fast, learn-faster environment. By removing managers from daily operations, both employees and leadership are freed to focus on what matters most for each group.

Create values-based metrics

You can’t just offer the leeway to be innovative and expect staff to take risks on their own. Providing creative freedom is one thing; giving employees a reason to utilize it is another.

Pursuing change means fundamentally risking your job — leaders need to encourage, even celebrate, when innovation goes wrong. This requires strong core values and metrics that measure employees’ performance against those values.

Look outside your own walls

Sparking innovation within a large, complex organization isn’t easy, so external partners can introduce new ideas and mitigate the risk of pushing for change. Many companies simply aren’t built to take risks or struggle to empower an isolated innovation group within the company.

Agencies provide an independent team that can work in parallel to try new products, validate ideas in the marketplace and utilize emerging technologies in ways that may stump enterprise teams.

Ultimately, capturing that startup spirit requires strong storytelling and empowerment. Give your employees motivation to embrace risk and the means to do so, and I guarantee they’ll respond.

Geoff Wilson is the president and founder of 352 Inc. and an evangelist for his Barely Manage to Lead philosophy, using agile teams to drive iterative growth. 352 is a digital product development agency specializing in product strategy, user experience design, custom web development and digital marketing. 352 turns ideas into successful digital products for companies like Cox Automotive, Microsoft and YouCaring.