Innovation in the Age of the Entrepreneur

Digital technology has enabled the age of the entrepreneur; creating new industries and upending many established entities. Individuals with minimal funding can now challenge for their place in the sun. Governments are becoming pro-entrepreneurship, more willing to give a helping hand, in their quest to create sustainable economies on the global stage.

Companies and organisations are failing to innovate fast enough and are often caught in a time warp – “we have been in the market for 60 years; we are leaders in our field; we have the knowledge…” While young entrepreneurs with a credit card are chancing their arm on new ventures, more often than not more agile, flexible, edgy and customer focused than established products and services. So, how do companies caught-up by past successes, reputation, and culture enter the world of the entrepreneur?

Looking Out rather than Looking in

In organisational settings staff are, more often than not, embedded in the organisation’s culture, operationally minded, conservative and risk-adverse. Most organisations are built for efficiency, not innovation, in a working environment driven by introspective planning, short-termism, prescriptive policies and procedural manuals. Often the most important meetings in a day are with each other.

Organisations need a sense of inquiry and curiosity. They need to spend more time out in the world inhabited by their customers or the people they would like to have as customers. The key is an openness and empathy for the world of the people whose problems they might be trying to solve.

Entrepreneurs are free to explore the world of opportunity, and are not hampered by the fear of failure; indeed it is integral to success.

Purposeful Innovation

Clearly most companies and organisations have been innovative at some point in their history, when they had to innovate to win. Once overheads and administration demanded more careful husbandry of resources innovation was slowly edged out.

Culture change isn’t easy, but it is about putting one foot in front of the other and overcoming the constraints to innovation:

  1. Remove hazards and uncertainty. Public ostracism is rarely an inducement for innovation. Focus on the attempt.
  2. Identify your best innovators and recruit more of them. Infect the organization with optimism, purpose and excitement.
  3. Put your lateral thinkers in the mainstream; don’t isolate them in a bubble or innovation hub. Isolation accelerates innovation but it doesn’t increase organisational acceptance.
  4. You can’t impose a culture of innovation. Change is threatening. Actions from the top speak louder than words. Be intentional by making actual change, rather than talking about change.
  5. Give up control. Give just enough structure and support to help people navigate uncertainty and tap into the creative process without stifling it.
  6. Frame the way you want to change the world through innovation and make it about the customer.

Entrepreneur start-ups are experiments. So just like in a science lab, the more experiments you run, the more likely you are to create something great. The same is true in organisational settings. So you’ve got to ask yourself, “What’s going to make it more likely for people in my organisation to start to innovate to make us faster on our feet to meet the demands of a rapidly changing marketplace?”


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