By thinking small, big companies can win

Two recent lists of highly innovative companies compiled by Forbes and Fast Company include Square, Splunk, Fab, and Uber.

Not exactly household names – and Google, Apple or Facebook did not crack the top ten. Not many businesses were not larger than a few hundred employees that made the top ten. In fact, 54.8% of the respondents in a recent Wall Street Journal survey said small companies are just better at innovation than big behemoths often laden with bureaucracy.

One reason for the disparity: Innovation looks different at a large organization versus a smaller one. There are lessons, however, that smaller organizations can share about how they’re set up to adapt to a constantly shifting business reality.

  • Work with your Organizational structure, not against it: Small companies usually have shallow organizational structures, which makes it easier for different roles to collaborate. Big companies can achieve this by creating small teams that champion innovation.
  • Challenge existing assumptions: Small companies often question current beliefs or assumptions, which helps create new opportunities. A startup culture can take hold in a big company by asking: “How can we constantly adapt to the changing landscape?”
  • Make leadership a visible presence in innovation: A smaller company usually has a leadership team that is very visible, leading to more recognition of individual talent. An email from the CEO or Chief Innovation Officer thanking someone for their contribution is a great way to provide intrinsic value to a large business’ efforts.
  • Ingrain the message: In small startups people are constantly reminded about the importance of their innovation objectives because it is essential for their survival in the marketplace. In some larger companies employees can get tied up in their day-to-day tasks, while innovation is only covered at an annual leadership speech. To reverse this, larger companies need to have an innovation function in place that embeds innovation in everyday thinking and workloads.

The overarching lesson here is one of transparency: the more a large organization shares with its members, the more engaged and innovative they will be.

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