The responsive organisation: Hacking a corporate culture by learning from startups 

Viktoria Ruubel, Co-Founder of VUNK shares her viewpoints on how large companies can embrace agility and innovation. She will also take stage to elaborate on the topic at TM Forum Live! in Nice, France in May.

Throughout my professional life, I’ve been lucky to be a part of both the corporate and the startup worlds. I’ve experienced how small, seemingly crazy ideas can become growing businesses, and also how some of the most promising ideas completely fail. I’ve seen established large companies successfully implement disruptive changes, but also how some of their biggest efforts to transform have simply flopped.

In the corporate world, we’re continuously discussing how to embrace agility, transformation, disruption, and innovation. We are very good at creating strategies, developing plans and roadmaps, and implementing them in our complex organizations. Once we hit the roadblocks we are supposed to face when making substantial changes, we often dive into internal discussions when instead we should be moving forward and remembering the importance of succeeding through trial and error. Innovation, agility, transformation – these become empty buzzwords in our boardrooms. Despite all of the smart people working in the company, we seem to fail in executing meaningful change within a meaningful timeframe.

Steve Blank, the creator of the Customer Development methodology that spawned the Lean Startup movement once said that, “In the last few years we’ve recognized that a startup is not a smaller version of a large company.”

By now, we also know that large companies are not simply larger versions of startups. By acknowledging the fact that large companies and startups are driven by different goals and are different in their nature, I believe we can still learn a lot from startups.

Bypassing a discussion about how corporates are different from startups and vice versa, let’s instead focus on what corporates can learn from small, agile teams. At Telia, we’ve kept close to these five startup qualities when building our corporate culture.

1. Define the problem you are solving

Great startups work on understanding and validating the problem they need to solve before jumping right into solving it. Understanding the problem unites the team and brings clarity and focus to the execution. In the corporate world, defining the problem that the transformation effort will solve is the most critical element for success of any transformation strategy. Agility and innovation are not the problems, and not even the solutions – they are the frameworks and tools that companies develop to solve internal challenges, be it a slow time-to-market, failure to find new business models, dispirited corporate culture or something else entirely.

If you do not know why you are doing what you are doing, you will be unlikely to succeed. Einstein is quoted as having said that if he had one hour to save the world he would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem and only five minutes finding the solution. When we were designing the digital transformation strategy at Telia, we took time with the team to understand and commit to the problem we wanted to solve.

2. Create and keep keen focus

Outstanding startups are extremely focused (almost to the degree of maniacal obsession) on their vision and the customer problem that they solve. It drives their actions — all decisions are made through this prism. For our innovation effort at Telia, creating a keen focus had a massive effect on the ability to create clear paths to move faster with execution and create an early understanding of what is working and what needs to be changed. The key is not only focusing on one main problem in strategic areas, but also limiting the number of strategic company-wide initiatives.

3. Experiment to answer questions and address uncertainty

Exceptional startups succeed not only because they are experts in their field, but also because they are very good at experimenting. Startups excel at breaking down a long-term vision into micro-actions that are feasible, entirely executable and provide enough learning to move to the next step. As time and funding is limited, they need to deliver often enough to validate assumptions and show what works and what does not.

It’s a smart way to add speed to execution and reduce the risks of investing resources into projects that don’t produce results. For example, Google does thousands of experiments per year  via a small percentage of their searches. Whether they realise it or not, most companies innovate by trial and error, not by planning. Setting experiments (small, sustainable sprints and reviews) provides a way to learn and adjust long phase-driven projects.

4. Build aspirational culture and sense of ownership

Culture is often defined as set of values, but in reality it’s more about sense of purpose – why people come to work. Successful startups understand that people don’t come to work to increase shareholder value and get a paycheck. People want to be part of something bigger, something meaningful. Your team must believe in purpose and have a sense of ownership. And yet, large companies are struggling to understand this, and they often build culture by creating guidelines of values shared on PowerPoint in boardrooms. How inspiring and impactful is that? Culture constantly evolves not through words, but through actions.

To disrupt internal culture at Telia, we decided to walk the talk. We created an innovation team ‘outside’ of corporate rules and policies – a small ‘startup’ of it’s own with a problem to solve, vision to achieve and freedom to execute without formal line of report. It helped to create a highly aspirational environment and gave the team a sense of ownership. As a result, these positive results and energy have rubbed off on the rest of the organization – this has created a visible change in the attitudes and behaviors of management and employees. Macro-revolutions start with micro-revolutions!

5. Hire people for attitude

Viktoria inspiring @ VUNK hackathon 2015
In business, the environment and the rules are constantly changing — new opportunities (and also threats) appear quickly. Business models can change in the most unexpected ways, and during the last few years the speed at which new business models appear and find their permanent place in our everyday life is unprecedented. If you are building an agile company, hire for a ‘new’ agile culture – don’t just look for specific qualifications; hire also for attitude. The value of experimentation, learning fast and adapting in the fast-paced world of disruption are crucial skills for innovative responsive organizations.

These are only a few of the many qualities that we can learn from successful startups. The fundamental truth is that moving from legacy to disruptor starts with the culture – an ability to constantly learn and reimagine existing rules and beliefs.

Companies need to move from the factory model to the laboratory model. Responsive organization is a cultural mindset that is continuously redesigned through experimentation, learning, and relentless execution.


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