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What big corporates must learn from agile startups

Sarv Saravanan
22nd Apr 2016
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For quite a while now, there has been a buzz around growing number of Indian startups, angel investors and venture capital funds supporting them – much like in the Silicon Valley. Despite some grumblings about the lack of innovation, it is hard to ignore their confidence, business models, and jugaads (low-cost innovative fixes). Their exuberance has ignited desire among the youth – and even among those with well-paying jobs at multinational corporations – to get out of the existing system and do something new.

The typical mindset of a startup revolves around disrupting, trying to change the way things are being done now, and creating the next unicorn. These young stars do not have all the resources required. Yet, what propels them is pure passion and the drive to somehow make the idea work by leveraging constant shifts in digital technologies.

Lessons-learnt---YourStory

Contrast this with the working of a typical large company. There are silos, controls, approval processes, petty politicking, turf wars, attitudes of why something can’t be done – as opposed to ‘how can we make it happen’. This takes attention away from disruption happening out in the marketplace and it can lose business. It is not that businesses that are über-ed didn't have all the tools and technologies available to Uber, Amazon, or AirBNB. Incumbents in all sectors are generally plagued by bureaucracy, lack of experimentation and innovation, lack of intrapreneurship and unwillingness to disrupt their own business.

How do we get around this? I believe executives in large companies should be encouraged to mingle with startups on a regular basis. I have invested in some startups, and am also on the board of a startup (of course with full disclosure to my company). I engage with them constantly and I feel refreshed. With over 25 years of corporate career in large companies, my learnings and perhaps operating notions are in the context of a big corporate: complying with rules, obtaining approvals, minding do’s and don’ts and mostly playing safe. All of these get challenged as I interact with charged-up folks in my investee companies.

To begin with, startups think big and challenge the status quo. They work towards innovations that are deemed to change lives. Some large companies have a great vision and bigger cause. However, they often fail to connect with employees on what that means to them, in what ways they are contributing to achieve the overall goal. They end up losing opportunity to inspire them. Thinking big thus gets limited to few people at top levels, and ground-level ideas with potential to make a difference rarely find their right way.

In startups, the founders and employees take enormous risks. They are not afraid of failing. Despite lacking in resources and roles rarely defined, they roll up their sleeves do everything needed to make an idea ‘happen’. Contrast this with a team leader managing 100 engineers in a large company. How many team leaders with 100 engineers understand their own power and can create something big for the organisation while enriching their careers? The answer is not easy to find.

As startups go through the journey, they are not bogged down by hurdles. They find ways to work around those hurdles and get inspired by new possibilities. Causing disruption and changing lives give a new meaning to their mindsets and careers. Top talent gets attracted towards them. On the other hand, a familiar story we often hear in large corporate is: the task could not be completed because I depended on (say) division A to finish its bit. An engineering director with a large team constantly complains about lack of resources and bandwidth issues for not doing more. The thinking process is defaulted to why something can’t be done as opposed how to make it happen. We often desire to see more accountability and doing all it takes to accomplish a task.

The upside to success is huge in startups. They democratise wealth creations. We often see managers and leaders spreading the benefits and wealth among their employees. For me, it is like going to a health spa as I meet my investee companies. I feel rejuvenated and come back mentally stimulated. That plays a huge role in how I approach my corporate role. I look at the role I do as an entrepreneurial opportunity and (of course) within the context of my current company, its challenges, its opportunities and the market in which plays, and how my team can enable my company’s success.

It is beginning to be visible in everything we do. How do we encourage our teams to step up and think big to go after bigger problems or opportunities to make a difference with new offerings to our customers without waiting for instructions from the headquarters? How do we enable ourselves as we discover lacking in capabilities in certain areas? How aspiring are we about our brand in the market? How we challenge our teams to define their own North Star?

I feel I am in tune with what is happening in the industry and potential disruptions. At the same time, I am more contemporary in my approaches as a leader for the organisation and teams that are looking for my leadership. Every bit of time with startups is a huge payback for me, and to the job I do for my company.

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)

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