Our blog

Want to be more innovative? Stop acting like a start-up


07 March 2017

Rob Holtom

Blogs by author: Rob Holtom, Head of Digital Innovation, BT


Find out how your organisation can be more innovative — and why that doesn’t require a foosball table.

Innovation for business growth.

The quest for innovation is everywhere we look. Innovation — we’re told — is more important, more open, and more transient. And injecting a culture of innovation across your entire organisation — well, that’s the difference between a sparkling trajectory of growth and a slide into irrelevance and oblivion.

So far, so good. But the next question is: how? How does an established company that’s built its business over years, even decades, ensure that innovation is pulsing through every aspect of it? It’s become de rigeur to look to start-ups for inspiration on how to make this happen — and why not? It’s start-ups that have brought us some of the most transformative new products and services — disrupting entire industries — from transportation to healthcare, retail and media.

Start-up failures and successful ecosystems.

But, I would suggest, it’s wrong for established companies to simply copy the behaviours and practices of start-ups. This approach — which ranges from the superficial (a foosball table in the communal area) to the radical (programmes designed to encourage us to think and act like a start-up) — forgets one crucial factor. Start-ups fail, a lot. And your big, established organisation — with its huge customer base, loyal employees, and pension fund — cannot.

Established companies mustn’t mimic the start-up to survive. Instead, they need to widen their perspective and model themselves on the start-up ecosystem. Because, while start-ups themselves fail (nearly all the time), the ecosystem as a whole is set up to thrive.

This ecosystem contains more than the start-ups alone. It consists of the venture funds that provide the capital, expertise and governance; the universities contributing skilled people and emerging technologies; and other organisations, both large and small, which are willing to partner, invest, and collaborate.

Helping innovation to flourish.

Rather than trying to transform your established company into a start-up, invest in producing the systemic conditions for innovation to flourish. This means creating the financial processes that can spot good investment opportunities and fund them, on a small scale and at speed. It means feeding your ‘people pipeline’, identifying and recruiting the hottest talent and upskilling those with potential.

And it means having an open and productive attitude towards partnering, combining your unique capabilities or intellectual property with others to achieve greater goals (like BT does through its Infinity Lab programme). If you do this transformation right, you’ll inherit desirable start-up-like behaviours, such as being more agile, efficient, and outward-focused, in the context of an established business.

By all means also provide free smoothies, hold hackathons, and create a stimulating, fun culture. Treating your employees well and making the workplace inspiring is simply the right thing to do. But put your maximum effort into emulating all the elements of the start-up ecosystem; this will enable you to nurture innovation opportunities without lurching the entire company towards some new goal, chasing every tech trend or emerging market. Above all, it will give you the best chance for innovation to generate spontaneously and, in fact, be impossible to suppress.