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What Corporates Can Learn from Disrupters?

Entrepreneurs, misfits, crazy ones, rebels, troublemakers, risk takers and rule breakers. Just a few of the terms used to describe us entrepreneurs over the last 20 years. Since the term ‘entrepreneur’ emerged into everyday vocabulary, entrepreneurs have become synonymous with disruptive style behaviours, which has in turn become synonymous with mythical success and disruptive greatness.

Entrepreneurs, misfits, crazy ones, rebels, troublemakers, risk takers and rule breakers. Just a few of the terms used to describe us entrepreneurs over the last 20 years. Since the term ‘entrepreneur’ emerged into everyday vocabulary, entrepreneurs have become synonymous with disruptive style behaviours, which has in turn become synonymous with mythical success and disruptive greatness.

But if the idea of having trouble makes, rebels and crazy ones regularly upsetting the apple cart of your well-established business and it’s processes, makes your hair stand on end a little then you’re probably not alone.

Nevertheless with the life expectancy of Fortune 500 companies expected to be reduced to less than 18 years by 2027, as we hurtle towards the 21st Century we are moving closer and closer to a world where the two absolutely must learn to co-exist if businesses, large or small, want to survive and thrive in an age of exponential change.

The problem is that it is a long-held perception that for most of us entrepreneurs, being disruptive, taking risks and breaking rules is how we get things done. And that for most larger businesses these kinds of behaviours are quite frankly too disruptive. But this isn’t the full story, and within these perceptions is a long-forgotten fact that every large corporate was once a small start-up and there is definitely some distinct advantage to everyone to behaving in a more entrepreneurial way.

Let’s not forget that in order to be disruptive and think differently, you have be a great problem solver. And if you ask any entrepreneur, contrary to popular belief, risk taking is far less about throwing caution to the wind, and more about doing as much market analysis as possible and then choosing to operate in an unknown environment because of the potential rewards, rather than taking the ‘safe option’. 

So in 2018 when the World Economic Forum published their 2020 skills report, predicting the kind of skills that will be most in demand in order to ‘Master the Fourth Industrial Revolution’ it comes as no surprise to see skills such as Complex Problem Solving, Critical Thinking all move to the top of the chart, with new entrants included Emotional Intelligence and Cognitive Flexibility.

We need to start thinking about these behaviours less as disruptive and more as essential. And we need to start thinking about how we encourage and enable them within our leadership and in our teams. So, the question is not so much about what can a corporate learn from a start-up, but more about how can a corporate reintroduce the kind of catalytic thinking and behaviour that got them to the point of growth and scale in the first place?

This is where the real challenge lies and where success will very much depend on the kind of culture, environment and process you have already created, as well as how accommodating these factors might be to thinking and acting differently. Entrepreneurs are experts in overcoming barriers and blockers to just about everything and this is where corporates can really learn from their example. Here are the some of the ways you can check to see if you might be helping or hindering you and your team to be more entrepreneurial:

Start with Culture & Values
How overtly does your culture or your values encourage this type of behaviour? And how overtly do they hold it back? By nature, entrepreneurs are experimenters, testing new ways to do things, new products, new processes. They don’t always get things right and that’s ok. If it’s part of your customer charter to be ‘right first time’ then you’re creating a culture where no-one is prepared to ever be wrong. And if no-one is ever prepared to be wrong then no-one is pushing boundaries or thinking differently.

Check Your Environment
In the same way as culture and values, the environment you create has a huge part to play in facilitating creative thinking. How easy is it for teams to communicate? Does your office environment include creative and collaborative spaces? Or now that the majority of your team have switched to an online environment, be it temporary or permanent, how do you stay connected, collaborative and creative now?

Where start-ups often have an advantage, is the proximity to the rest of the team, the often crossover in roles and the level of over communication between team members. Everyone is aware of what everyone else is up to and you’re often moving too fast to for anyone to be operating alone.

You don’t have to include slides or ping pong tables to encourage creativity, and even less so in the current climate, but you do need to make sure everyone isn’t siloed away or adhering to stiff or traditional codes. And now more than ever make sure no one is left feeling isolated an unable to contribute in a meaningful way.

Remove Processes That Block Entrepreneurial Behaviour
This may be easier said than done. The nature of corporates is that you have to leave behind scrappy processes in favour of systems that enable you to be more efficient and facilitate growth. However, we often find that by doing this we accidentally facilitate out some of the really important, good stuff! Does your business operate on billable hours? If so, how much free time do you leave for critical thinking and problem solving outside of this?

Every entrepreneur I know dedicates time to re-imagining all of the ways that their business could improve.

“When you’re working for a big company, you’re always trying to validate their business model, they have a way of doing things and you need to convince clients that is the right way. But when you run your own business, and if you’re going to be successful, you always have to seek to disprove your business model and always try to find new ways to do things. Should we move into this space, should we do this rather than that, should we improve our hiring process. We are a small team so we can make those decisions often and quickly.”

Matt Kandela – Co-Founder, DEAR FUTURE

Develop A Team of Intrapreneurs
I don’t know how many times we have come across businesses where innovation and creativity are left to those with innovation in their job title. But in order to create a culture of innovation, this has to be part of everyone’s role, and part of everyday life.

Once you have removed any blockers from you values, culture, environment and processes, it’s time to start teaching your team to think and act more like entrepreneurs. And no, I don’t necessarily mean to suddenly become a merry band of misfits, more like how they can incorporate tools and techniques used by entrepreneurs into everyday practices.

How can everyone adopt lean practices? How do you practice experimentation? What permission do you have to try new ways of doing things? Would you go as far as introducing these new kinds of behaviours into your performance management systems?

Recruit for Entrepreneurial Talent
The last thing to learn from entrepreneurs is how to recruit for entrepreneurial talent. In a start-up we don’t have the luxury of recruiting for hugely specific role profiles, at some point in time everyone has to muck in and adapt to multiple different roles within the business, as well as contributing to the ongoing development and direction of the business. Likewise, in a small business personality, values and diversity are absolutely essential to create a team that is going to thrive together. Traditional competency-based interviewing just isn’t sufficient to figure out if a new recruit has what it takes to cut it in an entrepreneurial environment.

When was the last time you adapted your recruitment processes to assess for these kinds of skills and behaviours? If the answer is never, then it may be time to start.

Despite the crazy and rebellious rap, there is a reason why entrepreneurs and disruptors are notoriously successful. They are prepared to go where others aren’t, they are prepared to put ego aside and be wrong in pursuit of a new and different version of right. They are able to re-imagine themselves daily and reshape their business quickly in order to stay relevant and in demand. These are qualities we are all going to need to recruit and develop within our teams if we’re going to keep up.

Gayle Mann & Lucy-Rose Walker, Directors – Entrepreneurial Spark

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