The innovation gap between small businesses and big businesses

In a Harvard Business Review blog post, Ron Ashkenas asked the question “Can a Big Company Innovate Like a Start-up?”.

At the time the post was written (a month ago), Google’s Eric Schmidt was stepping down as CEO and Google’s co-founder Larry Page was taking the role instead. Based on the official statements that followed, it became clear that Google was trying to get back to a place of nimble innovation that it once occupied.

On the HBR blog, Ashkenas wondered if it was possible for large companies to achieve the fast, bleeding-edge innovation that start-ups are more commonly known for. And he correctly points out that employees of big businesses probably don’t innovate as often because they have a different set of risk/reward measurements.

I see this all the time in the companies of my own clients: The small business entrepreneurs and start-ups are passionate about the business and totally bought-in to the opportunities that exist through innovation. On the other hand, the big business employees are more focused on success in their own specific functions, and in job security, and the CEOs of these companies are often insulated from the innovative side of the business.

As companies grow, they become risk-averse, partly because their employees are no longer bought in to the company in the same way that the early start-up employees were. I’ve been part of start-ups and we were willing to work around-the-clock for next-to-nothing to see the company succeed. There was something thrilling about being part of that creation process. I’ve also been part of big, entrenched companies, and that just doesn’t exist.

Big companies also become risk-averse because their brand has much more equity, and a wound from negative press can cut deeply. Compare that to the start-up that has a brand but very little brand equity. They can make mistakes and they know they’ll get over those bumps.

In the HBR blog post, Ashkenas offers three pieces of advice for big businesses that want to innovate like small businesses: He says they should (1) Set up a venture group, (2) Carve off skunk-works, and (3) Hold innovation contests. (You can read the blog post here: Can a Big Company Innovate Like a Start-up?.)

I think those are great ideas but I also think that big businesses can do so much more: It starts with revising the corporate culture so that all employees are motivated to see the company as a whole succeed but are also willing to accept risk to a greater degree. To make this cultural change, HR’s hiring processes and payroll metrics will need to change. In other words, don’t hire “lifers” who want a salary; hire aggressive entrepreneurs who would prefer to shine while also enjoying a greater degree of control over their remuneration. (I’ve seen this work very successfully in a multi-billion dollar organization).

Another opportunity where big businesses can change is in decision-making. In many of my big-business clients’ hierarchies, decisions rest at the managerial level and the worker-bees end up focusing on job security because they don’t have the authority to take action on innovation opportunities. Grass-roots innovation (the best kind of innovation!) can take place when people have the authority to act quickly.

Which leads me to my next idea: Big businesses need to define innovation appropriately: We tend to think of innovation at the product/service level. However, innovation opportunities exist everywhere. If a front-line staffer discovers a faster way to do their job, they can save the company a small amount of money. But if that innovation is shared among other front-line staff, the company can enjoy larger savings. And that’s just one example. Businesses can innovate in their processes, in their sales funnel, in their technology, and so much more. People will naturally innovate to find ways to make their jobs better; a large organization just needs to pay attention to what its staff is already doing.

Lastly, employees in big businesses are scared of innovating because it could risk their job security. (“What happens if the manager walks by and sees me doing my job this way? It accomplishes the same thing faster but it’s not how I’ve been told to do my job… AND my manager doesn’t have the patience or foresight to allow me to explain why I’m doing it this way”). What businesses need to do is create a framework for evaluating innovation successes and failures in order to empower employees to make changes without fear of reprisal (within reason, of course).

Big businesses can be innovative, and I think they can be as innovative as small businesses. Unfortunately, it requires such a massive cultural shift, I suspect it is next to impossible to achieve.

Published by Aaron Hoos

Aaron Hoos is a writer, strategist, and investor who builds and optimizes profitable sales funnels. He is the author of The Sales Funnel Bible and other books.

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