Do not fake to be a start-up! Why “copy paste” is the wrong way to more agility

Alejandro Brega
Nov 19, 2018 · 5 min read

This week, the 18th Swiss Economic Forum takes place on the highly relevant topic of “Agility — Success Factor in Times of Change”. The term was rarely used a few years ago except in dog sports, it suddenly appears everywhere from nowhere. Even companies that saw the light of day shortly after the invention of the steam engine now suddenly want to be agile at all costs. How can the current change in attitude be explained? In the digital age, the rules of the game are being rewritten. The long-standing success story in the past is suddenly no guarantee for future prosperity; on the contrary, it can even be a hindrance. “Our industry does not respect tradition — it only respects innovation”, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella summed it up shortly after taking office.

In the digital age, new role models are needed — who most credibly embodies the new paradigm? Start-ups! They stand for entrepreneurship and radical rethinking. Above all, they are authentic and passionate. Enthusiasm for one’s own idea and the desire for implementation is paramount. And they have no past: it does not take a change project to introduce open space concepts, no internal CO2 regulation to tame the motorization of the corporate fleet, and no IT project to send analogue processes to nirvana. They are cloudborn and lean. The not-so-trivial question is how established companies can dispose of their rigid shell and become an agile butterfly. Agil describes the following two dimensions from the perspective of established companies:

Agile organization: the ability to react quickly to impulses and changes Agile mindset of individuals: the attitude that challenges are opportunities for differentiation and development as well as the openness to new things

If we keep in mind that we have just outgrown the age of business process optimization, and in many companies the compliance department was the only one to grow significantly in the last 10 years, it becomes clear that many companies still need to keep up on agility issues. New office space, a new home office policy, the introduction of enterprise social platforms or the implementation of co-creation workshops and hacking are just a few examples of companies trying to trade hip gold for agility. Steve Blank calls staged activities without effect “Innovation Theater”. A typical example is the stylish new Design Thinking Meeting room, in which managers in a tie give their patrolmen the order to march. Just like back when the room was still called “Vrenelisgärtli” and came as a classic meeting room.

Recent studies show that many of these well-intentioned change measures not only evaporate without effect, but even demonstrably weaken the organization, as they throw sand into the gears. If promises are not kept, curiosity and enthusiasm will turn into frustration and mistrust.

But which approaches are available to established companies that want to seriously develop themselves in order to increase their own ability to innovate?

Personnel development measures: Change measures and training for existing employees; At the same time, the requirements for new employees are being revised as part of the recruitment strategy.

Change measures and training for existing employees; At the same time, the requirements for new employees are being revised as part of the recruitment strategy. Cooperation with external parties: Missing abilities are specifically bought for a limited or indefinite period; External people take over the role as impulse generator.

Missing abilities are specifically purchased for a limited or indefinite period; External people take over the role as impulse generator. Lab: Laboratory-like units are set up inside or outside company boundaries with the aim of breaking the clumsiness of the organization and promoting innovative thinking within “protected cells” (example: SIX F10).

Lab-like units are set up inside or outside the company’s boundaries to break through the clumsiness of the organization and encourage innovative thinking within “protected cells” (example: SIX F10). Outpost: Knowing that a one-time visit to Silicon Valley is not enough to ensure the continuous transfer of knowledge in homoeopathic doses, many companies have set up so-called “listening posts”, which look for innovation potential on the ground and ensure networking with the mothership (example Swisscom).

Despite initial euphoria — especially with regard to labs and outposts — skepticism is already spreading in initial studies as far as the effectiveness of these measures is concerned. Many are not sustainable because the desired “cultural spillover” does not take place.

More by accident, I recently came across a new exciting idea: digital facades. Somewhat very freely interpreted, this approach implies that it is enough to do some credible digitization and change projects in order to credibly signal, internally and externally, that the leap into the digital age has been successful. Behind the façade — and that’s the really sexy thing — you can continue to work in peace at your usual pace. What sounds like resignation is a promising approach for me, as the first positive signals of these projects help to transform the organization stress-free. When we did the virtual buzzer project at Microsoft, we found our working culture to be normal, not innovative. Amazingly, a big jolt went through the organization, after the topic was very positively addressed by the media and customers. The employees felt a pride that we could not have created purely through internal change measures.

Finally, my personal conclusion on agility and the way there:

Control alt delete instead of copy paste — Sending the entire management or particularly well-deserved employees to Silicon Valley and then copying these approaches do not seem to be a sustainable approach except for the travel industry. Many companies first need to do unlearning before agility can occur in their minds and organization. Pilot projects and prototyping — Instead of turning the whole organization upside down with change projects, it’s a good idea to test things on a small scale. On the one hand, this has the advantage that you can virtually experiment and learn with a safety net; on the other hand, the pilot participants can also be used as ambassadors for the new. Strong values as a foundation — A new MIT study shows that innovation projects are more powerful if they incorporate the success story of the past. Similarly, Harvard Business Review puts it in a nutshell: one success factor for disproportionate growth is the strong presence of values from the start-up period.

The last point is of personal concern to me when it comes to change projects. Most people have a very high personal willingness to change when they see the meaning behind the reorientation. Resistance arises when they are not transparently involved and can not participate in shaping it. Even more important is the esteem for what has already been done. Because of copying and Generation-Y-madness, many forget to put the employees at the center who have led the company to success in the past. The same applies to corporate cultures, as Oscar Wilde aptly put it before the onset of the digital age. “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken ». Staying true to your values is a prerequisite for innovation. Because only on a strong foundation can agility arise.

Photo by Yucel Moran on Unsplash


Alejandro Brega

Written by

TheStartupFounder.com — Startups, fintech, e-commerce, crypto and online advertising.