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Getting the Right Mindset, Key to Innovating Like a Startup

December 12, 2016 - 6 Comments

In my previous post, I shared the challenges of innovating within a large enterprise, and how we approached this learning from startups whenever possible. I shared the first of five steps we’ve learned so far: Getting the right people on the bus. On this post I would like focus on Step 2: Getting the mindset right.

With a great team aboard the bus, we realized that it was critical to get the thinking right. We felt inspired by what startups do right when they succeed, whether it was out of virtue or necessity. We used that as our guiding light. In many cases, this forced us to ask ourselves hard questions. Specially, how to change how we would naturally behave in a corporation and instead think, “What would we do if we were in a startup?”

This was one of our teams at the last Startup//Cisco Workshop in San Jose.

This was one of our teams at the last Startup//Cisco Workshop in San Jose.

We identified several mindset components:

Breaking the resource curse—and going back into bootstrapping mode: When created, most startups have very limited resources—and they have to get extremely creative to get by. On the other hand, many corporations and their teams get used to a distorted view of the world, where everything is extremely expensive and takes a long time. We needed to resort to thriftiness, introducing artificial time and resource constraints. This forced us to speed up our decisions, to get creative to use less resources, and to focus on what really matters.

Bias to action: In a corporate setting, it’s possible to admire a problem for a long time. There are actually dozens of very defensible reasons why to defer action (i.e. “we need to get xyz’s buy-in,” “we need to sync up with this other group,” etc.). Yet, the fact that something is defensible doesn’t mean you should use it as an excuse to slow down. Because this often leads to over analysis and not getting anything real done—other than PowerPoint decks and emails. Startups can’t afford this wasted time, as in many cases time is indeed running out before the next round of funding, before a competitor beats us to the next release, etc. So, bias to action became a critical component of our team’s mindset.

If it won’t explode, it’s probably ready to sell: Many startups find themselves in the need to begin selling a suboptimal, sometimes barely functioning, version of their product to get some traction and revenue—and to accelerate their own learning process to allow them iterate into a good product. We had to follow this to get started. (I’ll cover this in detail in my next post.)

Kill silos before they kill you: Amongst many other dynamic tensions they need to balance, corporations need to find the harmony between optimizing for a function and for the whole. Optimizing for a function creates groups, which in many cases, end up being at odds—or having little motivation to collaborate with each other. Gillian Tett describes many examples in The Silo Effect. Startups can’t afford to have this happen to them at the rampant level it reaches in dysfunctional larger organizations, because it would kill them instantly. Hence, as mentioned in my previous post, we deliberately began our effort with a cross-functional team, which proved useful to bust many silo barriers.

Follow rules—and work around them if they slow you down: Large organizations are based not only on great talent, but also in processes and policies that allow the machinery to operate. However, as organizations get bigger there are more and more rules. At some point, you might reach a point in which practically anything you want to do contravenes some internal rule or policy—or what people think rules are. (We have found many examples in which employees’ fear is manifested in a more acceptable form: alluding to a rule or policy that exists somewhere, preventing us to do that thing we fear.)

Startups, on the other hand, haven’t even had the time to build complex policies and manuals (and most likely they don’t need them and don’t even want them). In our own journey, we decided we would bend all of the rules necessary to achieve the beneficial objectives for Cisco. If we hadn’t done this we’d still be asking for permission left and right, with no real progress to show. We’ve asked for forgiveness a few times, but overall we’ve found support because we’re trying to do the right thing.

These mindset components allowed us to move faster than the average speed of an internal initiative. Designing our effort to drive change behaving like a startup, instead of a corporate initiative, gave us a competitive advantage.

In my next post I’ll describe the Third Step: Once you have the right people and mindset, it’s time to build the engine and get moving.


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  1. Oseas, this is an excellent article and it really highlights our opportunity, as a big company, to get back to our roots. Keep the thought leadership coming with examples of where you see the behaviors you’ve highlighted play out.

  2. Customer at the Center of Everything is another mindset I’d add to innovating like a start up. Know the customers intimately and know their needs! Otherwise, you may deliver something cool, but doesn’t solve their ultimate problem.

    • You are absolutely right! That is the cornerstone of all the work we do with the innovation teams as they go through the journey from problem to solution. To your point, if we don’t do this we might deliver something cool – or something we think is of value, yet it satisfies none of the customer’s needs.

  3. Customer at the Center of Everything is another mindset I’d add to innovating like a start up. Know the customers intimately and know their needs! Otherwise, you may deliver something cool, but doesn’t solve their ultimate problem.

  4. Starting with the mindset that no one is exempt. Consider everyone and forget no one. You never know what else they offer in other locations. Think it out. Use the word maybe they will need me in the future.