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Ignite a Startup Culture Within Your Enterprise

Companies with goals of rapid growth need to combine an innovative startup mindset with enterprise-level focus and resources.

When you think of a typical startup, what words come to mind? “Progressive and trendy?” “Lean and innovative?” “Agile and engaged?”

Now, think of a classic Fortune 500 enterprise. Odds are, a large corporation that’s been around for decades invokes a different set of notions – perhaps “bureaucratic,” “too political,” “hierarchical,” “legacy” and perhaps a bit “outmoded” ring true.

Despite the intrinsic differences between startups and enterprises, one thing is certain: The pace of change in today’s market is so fast and volatile that companies of all sizes risk their very survival unless they become more disruptive and innovative. In fact, both startups and enterprises are at risk, as 90 percent of startups fail, and 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies may cease to exist in 10 years.

While there’s no silver bullet solution to success, large organizations can more readily adapt to the new business climate by developing a culture of open collaboration, and most importantly, innovation – that is, hyper co-innovation.

For startups, innovation is treated as a team sport, where a diverse set of players from all departments and roles inside and outside the company are as important as the ideas they generate. This is a stark contrast to a traditional enterprise’s approach, where innovation is often treated as a more rigid, defined process. But by changing their mindset and approach, even large enterprises can unleash the innovative nature that is within their employees and become more disruptive. Here’s how to think like a startup, but scale like an enterprise – and balance the best of both worlds.

Thinking like a startup

Innovation can come from anywhere, anytime. Employees in all job functions and at all levels should be encouraged to come up with innovative ideas and given the support needed to implement them.

At Cisco, we’ve personally experienced the success that comes from this mindset through our Innovate Everywhere Challenge, a companywide, cross-functional innovation competition that mirrors real-life startup practices. Employees from all job roles and levels are encouraged to form teams and pitch their innovative ideas for everything from business process improvements to new digital solutions. Teams with the best ideas are given funding, mentorship, and time off from their regular job functions to make their ideas a reality.

One of the most successful projects to arise from the challenge was LifeChanger, which helps people with disabilities work remotely by leveraging voice, video, and collaboration technologies. To date, more than 100 people with disabilities have gained access to meaningful employment through LifeChanger, and several other organizations are looking to implement the solution as well.

To begin thinking more like a startup, leaders should first emphasize cross-functional teams, think outside of functions, and break down business-unit silos. This will ensure that you are tapping into the best and brightest ideas. We know from experience and research that the most valuable digital solutions come from teams with different backgrounds and perspectives.

Second, enable transparent digital communication amongst teams and stakeholders. This could involve setting up an online forum, establishing a mentor network, or disseminating employee surveys and sharing feedback.

Leaders must also be flexible. Encourage rapid prototyping for solutions – validate concepts with potential customers early on, pivot fast, and take risks. And when something does not work, empower teams to learn from failures and move on to the next idea.

Lastly, understand that innovation is in everything: innovation should be integral to the way a company conducts day-to-day business, not just an approach to developing new products. Therefore, focus on people – not just technology – when incubating new ideas.

Scaling like an enterprise

On the other side of the coin, large enterprises also embody a core set of strengths, resources and partnerships that can accelerate innovation, such as their ability to quickly scale and get products to market.


Most successful enterprises actively build their ecosystems, leveraging vertical, horizontal, and local partners to ensure the scalability, mass customization, and reach of their solutions. They also know how to set their sights on clearly defined, broader goals, understanding that innovation is about more than delivering a cool new app or futuristic device.

Enterprises focus on the business outcomes and value at stake, rather than taking a scattered approach driven by passions that can be fleeting or change over time. Plus, they have established customers, partners, and marketing channels to broaden the exposure and credibility of innovative ideas.

Use these attributes and resources to your advantage as you begin to weave the startup mindset into your culture.

Bringing both worlds together

As you take the best characteristics from both successful startups and enterprises, the next step is to ignite a startup culture by engaging and challenging employees to innovate. Here’s how:

1. Open innovation to everyone

Innovation programs must be extended to all employees, across departments, levels, and roles. From there, encourage inclusion and diversity of perspectives, and empower employees to make decisions and tap into their inner entrepreneur.

2. Recreate a startup-like environment

As employees innovate, support their ideas with mentor networks, angel investors, and other resources that an actual startup would use. This will help lead your internal innovators through the four phases of a lean startup: ideation, validation, funding, and development.

3. Gamify

Use not only gamification to make innovation fun, but also introduce rewards (monetary, time off, etc.) as incentives. Additionally, look for opportunities to secure publicity for the innovative ideas or solutions your employees create. Highlighting their accomplishments is extremely rewarding for them, spurs further engagement and innovation from other employees, and can bolster your company’s brand reputation.

4. Appoint a champion

Designate an internal champion to lead your innovation initiatives and attain buy-in from the higher-ups, all the way to the C-Suite. Most importantly, your champion can help you discover existing, untapped talent by engaging as many employees as possible and sharing what your programs have to offer.

5. Customize for each culture

One size doesn’t fit all when it comes to innovation, especially for global companies. Every stakeholder in the mix (including employees) has a different set of personalities, priorities, and passions. And there will always be polarities of tension between established and startup practices in a big company. Therefore, customize and balance your program’s approach to stimulating employee innovation, blending both the startup and large enterprise mindsets. As innovation expert and author, Michael Docherty, advises: “Embrace the power of AND,” referring to the required blend of more than one approach to innovation.

By combining the best attributes of a startup culture with the scalability of an enterprise, competing in an age of disruption is far less daunting. The goal is to transform your organization and its culture by empowering and inspiring employees – regardless of role, rank, or region – to innovate. Then, providing a wealth of resources, training, and incentives, nurture innovation to bring big ideas to market. With employees innovating anytime, anywhere, you’ll better your entire organization – and change the world while you’re at it.

Meanwhile, if you have questions, get stuck, or need an innovation therapist, don’t hesitate to contact me:

This article originally appeared in Cisco Blogs on September 11, 2018


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