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COMMENTARY

Turning ships into speedboats - what startups can teach big business

THERE are many advantages to being a big business - the benefit of scale; resources to multiply the impact of decisions; the choice of top talent; and the ability to shape the direction of the industry.

Yet, despite these obvious strengths, big businesses are vulnerable. Never has this been more true than at the present moment, when we constantly see new ways of doing things, posing both opportunities and challenges. Iconic companies, once thought of as infallible, are struggling - GE is only the most recent example. Behemoths like Walmart have now to compete to keep up with e-commerce players; the hospitality industry has to defend itself against the pressures of the sharing economy; and the giants of media, be it broadcast or print, have to completely restructure their businesses. Models once considered guarantors of success have become bottlenecks to changing quickly enough. We all know that it is much harder to steer a big ship, than a small speedboat, away from an iceberg.

The small speedboats - startups - are often riskier as vessels but they compensate for what they lack in stability and size with resourcefulness, agility, creativity and the sheer passion for the ride.

What can big ships learn from small speedboats? I believe that there are three key "mindshifts" needed for big businesses to find (or rediscover) their entrepreneurial spirit.

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CHANGE STARTS AT THE FRONTLINE

The received wisdom about driving change is that it comes from the top - or in plainer terms, when the highest-paid opinion decides that there should be change. Nothing can be further from what actually propels an organisation forward.

Real change - the kind that turbocharge new ideas, accelerates speed-to-market, and fosters genuine innovation - begins ground up. It is when we empower those who are closest to the source of inspiration - to consumers, customers and the operations - and enable them to act on their ideas, only then will we spark innovations and breakthroughs.

All of us want to make a difference but often we believe ourselves to be powerless, at the mercy of "management". But management does not drive growth; entrepreneurs who are passionate about chasing an idea do. At a startup, the founders are the frontline.

TOO MUCH PROCESS KILLS YOU SOFTLY

The single biggest competitive advantage of a startup is its ability to execute with speed. A startup is impatient. This is the reason why entrepreneurial businesses are energising - the journey from idea to implementation is short and sharp.

Process is the enemy of speed, and there is nothing that says "big business" more than "process". Some companies have turned this into an art form - Scott Adams built a career out of caricaturing it. Meetings for the sake of meetings and "too many e-mails" are the most symptomatic but not the only examples. Hierarchy is another aspect of process that destroys productivity. We take our titles and designations so seriously that we care more about preserving pecking order than choosing the most efficient path to a decision. A big ship always has spare fuel to dump, so it is lax about wastage.

But the greatest danger of a process-driven culture is that it breeds groupthink. It is easier to agree than to disagree, and safer to align than to take ownership. No one does anything wrong, but no one does what is right either.

Startups are often criticised for not having processes in place - too much can go wrong, the boat can overturn. We need to find a balance.

SEEK OUTSTANDING, NOT 'FIT'

Everybody says "it's all about the people, we want to hire the best". In practice, however, big business often chooses candidates who have a better "fit" with the company's culture than candidates who are truly outstanding. Exceptional talent can be intimidating, it can be unconventional, and it can sometimes cause friction. Big businesses like averages because their behaviour makes us comfortable. Startups cannot afford do this. Startups are forced to be lean, therefore they must hire people who are absolutely the best in what they do.

Is there a risk that such a candidate may not spend a lifetime with the company? Yes. But which is the greater risk: potential attrition or the possibility that we give up on transformative talent? Big businesses must learn to hire entrepreneurs, not employees.

Hybrid is the future. Ships that can learn to combine the speed, the leanness and the smarts of speedboats with their inherent size, scale and muscle - in other words, a business that has the strength of a blue chip but the heart of startup, will create the next generation of corporate culture.

  • The writer is president - Asia Pacific, at Kimberly-Clark Corporation