Cisco UK & Ireland Blog

How to innovate like a start-up when you’re not one

January 26, 2017

The assumption with innovation is that smaller is better. Small means simple, agile, free of red tape.

And in some cases there’s truth to that assumption. The list of now-massive companies started in garages includes Google, Apple, Amazon and Disney – all worth billions of dollars now, but there was a time when only their ideas were big.

Sure, those companies might have been smaller and more nimble in those days. But can you really say Amazon isn’t innovative now, even with its 230,000 employees across the world?

The ability to develop new ideas and take them to market doesn’t only depend on a company’s size. With the right culture, even the biggest enterprises can be innovative.

Our Alpha Projects programme is a perfect example of this – an established tech business giving people the freedom to come forward with new ideas, then helping them turn those ideas into tangible products or services.

But this can’t happen overnight. Cultural change in any company is difficult to achieve, and in larger organisations it’s even more challenging. But there are a few steps you can take to help achieve it in the long run.

Here’s how you can innovate like a small company even if you’re not…

Let good ideas filter up

There was a time when top-down management hierarchies were the norm, with a team of directors at the top telling everyone else what to do.

Today, however, we’re seeing many more companies take on more of a flat management structure. Mark Zuckerberg famously sits at an ordinary desk with all the ‘regular’ employees at Facebook HQ.

Of course you have to have some kind of hierarchy – somebody has to run the place! But by creating an atmosphere where everyone is approachable and all voices have the right to be heard, you are much less likely to miss out on a great idea a more junior employee might have.

But you have to make it easy to harness those ideas. This could be through having the right reporting structure.

Give people freedom to fail

A quick Google of the phrase ‘famous failures’ will give you a list of now-successful people – the likes of J.K. Rowling and Bill Gates – who fell down before they made it. Often multiple times.

Failure doesn’t have to be something to fear anymore. It doesn’t spell the end – it simply means it’s time to try again, test, tweak, keep failing until it does work.

If your employees are scared of failing they’re much less likely to risk pursuing what could end up being the next billion-pound idea.

Support development of ideas

Let’s face it: ideas are cheap.

How many people sat in a pub or restaurant at some point saying how they wished taxis were cheaper and easier to order? Quite a few, probably. But only one set of people actually took that idea far enough to turn it into a fully fledged business.

If a good idea alone was enough we’d all be millionaires. Good ideas take a lot of investment before they start providing any returns.

And I’m not just talking about financial investment. There’s another arguably more valuable resource you need to provide: time.

Even in today’s world there’s no such thing as overnight success. Make sure you give people the time and mentoring they need, even if that means taking them away from their day jobs at certain points or for a set period of time.

Employ entrepreneurial people

You don’t have to own your own business to be entrepreneurial. Really it’s a state of mind – the ability to spot opportunities and the passion and drive to see them through to completion.

Your company might already be full of entrepreneurs-in-the-making, and it’s important to give those people the opportunity to show what they can do (some of the points mentioned above could help with that).

But equally you should always be trying to hire people who are entrepreneurial by nature – people who want to make their mark rather than simply do their time and go home again.

A company’s culture is largely defined by its people, so if you want a culture of innovation your hiring criteria needs to reflect that.

Share successes

Finally, make sure you shout about it when things go right.

This acts as a great form of internal PR – “Look, this person came up with a brilliant idea and we helped them turn it into reality. It could be you next time.”

By advertising successes you’ll also encourage more people to come forward with ideas or dedicate time and effort to coming up with them in the first place.

The long-term result? An ideas-driven culture that will allow large organisations to take on even their smallest, nimblest rivals when it comes to innovation.

Read more about Alpha Projects to see how we’re fostering start-up style innovation at Cisco.

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