Innovation has become the workout regimen of the business world. Everyone claims they do it — or likes to believe they do it — but at the end of the day, very few are actually seeing results. It’s not the innovation or the exercise itself that’s failing to deliver; it’s the approach.
Just like running 10 miles a day won’t land you the perfect body, creating an innovation team and setting it free won’t translate to industry-changing products. The people in these teams are most often previous employees who think like a big company, not an innovative and fast-moving startup. Therefore, their innovations are costly, rule-abiding, and deliver meager results.
With BarkBox, we didn’t start out as a massive organization. We were once a small company focusing on what we thought was a small idea; mailing monthly boxes. But over time, that small idea — backed by traction — transformed into a large-scale entertainment / product business. We were open to small changes, but never prohibited starting something that could move us closer to our goal of becoming the Disney for dogs.
By avoiding pain (risk) and neglecting the stairs (early traction), many companies and exercisers alike end up sitting around waiting for the results to show up on their own.
Why Companies Prefer the Status Quo
It’s not that these larger companies don’t want to create meaningful innovation — they absolutely do. But their existing habits, much like eating poorly or skipping leg day, make it nearly impossible to create impactful results.
The first bad habit is spending patterns. Entrepreneurs normally lack the funds to go big on the first try, so they develop lean methods to test and prove their assumptions. Big companies, on the other hand, have processes in place that make testing of new ideas expensive — think millions of dollars down the drain. They have the money, so they spend the money.
Which leads to the second bad habit. Because of the large investment, the project creates a “failure is not an option” mentality. They’ve already invested millions, so they can’t stop now, right? Unfortunately, that’s the wrong perspective.
Entrepreneurs, with their limited capital, have the freedom to stop a project the minute it fails to move the needle. Essentially, entrepreneurs are a bit more rebellious in the early days, but more rational after three to six months in, whereas big companies, who are a little bit too rational in the outset, develop irrational behaviors once the project hits maturity.
Leading the Company to Innovation Fitness
If you’re a boss who doesn’t think innovation comes from the top, then innovation won’t come easily. Many CEOs focus so intensely on moving the needle bit by bit, they overlook the need to innovate, leaving the innovators without the funds and direction they need to make meaningful changes.
However, a true innovator won’t allow organizational obstacles to stand in their way. If no one is listening, hack the bureaucracy silences you. If no one likes your idea, show a proof of concept to change their minds.
When I was a producer at MTV, I had an idea I was super passionate about, and took it to my boss for feedback. He didn’t care for it, but I didn’t let that to stop me. I bought the equipment with my own funds and ran a test. My boss couldn’t fight me on viability when he had the data right in front of him.
It sounds uncomfortable at first — as does running wind-sprints — but investing your evening, weekends, and a bit of your own money will make your team feel more comfortable spending millions.
Don’t wallow in self-pity because no one believe in your idea; place bets and show everyone when you take home the chips.
How Overweight Companies Can Innovate Correctly
Leaders of large corporations are faced with an immense challenge. How can they make their employees think like entrepreneurs? How can they encourage risk without wasting millions? If you aren’t sure how to answer those questions, the following tips are for you:
1. Take some ‘before’ photos.
The first thing every company should do is to look at what has been done and whether or not it’s been working. If it’s working, do more of that. If it’s not, consider moving the funds and employees to a more valuable project. Innovating just for the sake of innovating won’t move you closer to the next big idea if you’re chasing down multiple dead-end paths.
2. Find the best workout buddies.
Spend time reflecting on how you attract entrepreneurial talent. Have you created an environment that would attract people who have a growth mindset? Have you thought about how you could attract those people? And when you find and attract these entrepreneurs, are you evaluating their potential fit?
and far-fetched entrepreneurs may not be a great fit for a more traditional company, so get to know innovation candidates before snatching them up. They won’t be happy with your structure, and you won’t be happy with their reckless abandon.
3. Celebrate small gains.
Innovating doesn’t have to mean betting the house. Implementing innovative innovation means creating an expectation of small and calculated bets. New ideas should be partnered with a testing strategy and a modest budget. That way, when the testing proves the value, your company can go all-in without fear of going broke.
It sounds redundant to innovate your innovation, but the proof is in the low-fat pudding. Approaching your methodology with open eyes will lead to better results and bigger ideas. So stop sitting on the couch, hoping you’ll land your dream product — get out there and chase it down.
When attempting to explore new directions, larger companies often find themselves struggling to accomplish what companies with just a fraction of the resources achieve. It’s one thing for workers at a large company to think “agile” but quite another to actually innovate.
Even worse, many employees tasked with innovative projects are hesitant to stray too far from the box. After all, few people are rewarded when risky ventures fail.
While no one can eliminate all risk in any business venture, there are a few ways companies can approach innovative thinking that will reduce the risk of trying new things and increase their chances of success.
Organizations love to focus on new ideas that can “move the needle.” If projects don’t sound like $100 million ideas, they often don’t attract internal enthusiasm and buy-in.
Consequently, many ideas get bundled into “portal” formats — situations in which companies absorb exorbitant resources in the planning stages, envision a massive scope for a project, and allocate large budgets to pay for development. Companies often spend 18-24 months on a single project, only to see it fail when finally put in front of actual users. By the time the project is half-redone and ready for relaunch, enthusiasm has waned, and the world has moved on.
The difference between big companies and small ones is simple: Many of the operational processes inherent in large businesses naturally lead to high test costs and elongated development cycles. Their payment policies and procurement systems, for example, are designed for working with other large companies — not agile freelancers and small vendors.
These factors make building a good product quickly and cheaply almost impossible without the proper mindset.
Small companies have flexibility and experience interacting with startup resources. As an alternative to the “big company” methods that cost more and accomplish less, we recommend identifying a problem and focusing on finding the quickest way to test a solution to that problem with real customers. If an idea fails to gain traction, let it go; if it succeeds, double down and move forward.
Here are a few more tips to help you think like a startup in a big business:
1. Go through different channels. Think about what new structures would allow you to work with external partners the way startups do. Whether that means partnering with an intermediary or getting creative with payment terms and standard policies, you must be flexible if you want to work with (and emulate) smaller, more flexible companies.
2. Make the start the easy part. Focus on ideas that have an easy start and a big finish. Big companies like to plan out entire projects from beginning to end, but innovation requires more fluidity. Put the bulk of your energy into projects that can get quick traction, and build from there.
3. Avoid tunnel vision. Look at your industry holistically. Innovation isn’t just about making your existing business operations better; it’s about identifying tangential opportunities you might not have considered otherwise. If an unsolved problem makes itself apparent during your process, see whether you can find an answer for it.
4. Facilitate entrepreneurial talent. Why not work with the people who do this every day? Seek out venture partnerships by setting up new companies that can work with more flexible rules than your parent company.