Work Like Startups, Think Like Startups, Innovate Like Startups – No Matter What Business You’re In

There’s lots of things we can learn and apply from the startup world, no matter what type of business environment we’re in. One of them being to embrace failure – yes, be willing to fail. And another: shift your mindset totally and completely from everything you believe to be true about how to operate and how to be successful.

The startup mentality can reveal a lot of lessons that we can apply in business scenarios and as leaders across industries and types of companies – large, small – whatever. If you’ve always been in corporate settings (and especially if you’re used to dealing with a lot of red tape), thinking like a startup may feel very uncomfortable, strange and unattainable.

But taking some of those concepts and applying them to the challenges you’re facing right now might actually reveal very attainable, new ways of operating that can get you different results (you know that old saying about insanity).

So let’s roll up our sleeves and prepare to work like startups, think likes startups and innovate like startups.

Work Like Startups

Processes are good and bad. You need them for some things, for sure. But if you’ve adopted them and they’ve been passed down from generation to generation, never being question, they might no longer be relevant.

Sprint Finish Line

There’s lots of things we can apply from the startup world in terms of how we do work. In a recent article on the HubSpot blog, “How to Run Your Marketing Team Like a Startup,”  Ellie Mirman talks about this very topic.

Here’s how we’ve loosely applied the concept of sprints here in the content department at Bruce Clay, Inc. So the content team here has always focused on content strategy and development for the in-house side, with a percentage of that time focused on client content projects.

But with the demand for content strategy and development increasing steadily on the client side, it was apparent that the in-house/agency balance in the content department was tipping.

That meant we had to shift the way we tackled the workflow. Applying the idea of sprints, we decided to change the way we work in order to let us really focus. The solution was simple for us: we divide the week between in-house and agency work.

We spend 60 percent of our workweek in a sprint-type model, where we focus exclusively on client work and the other 40 percent of our time focused solely on in-house. That way, our mindset for these very different environments is able to flourish without distraction. We also prioritize and tackle things at a high level when needed, focusing on quick wins that move the needle on projects to keep the momentum going.

Can you apply any startup workflow to what you’re working on?

Think Like Startups

In a presentation by Joshua (Jabe) Bloom on “Failing Well,” he talks about the psychology and the science behind the startup mentality, and why failing actually makes us better decision-makers.

According to findings in his presentation, expertise and success can have an adverse effect on decision-making, forecasting and problem-solving.

Here’s the full preso – more discussion after the embedded media.

Failing Well from Jabe Bloom on Vimeo.

At about 19:00, Jabe shows a graph from the Seersucker Theory Report by J. Scott Armstrong. In the presentation, Jabe talks about the following graph and explains:

  • If you have very little experience, you are very bad at predicting the future.
  • If you have some experience, you are actually very good at predicting the future and almost as good as experts.
  • If you actually become an expert, some findings suggest you actually become worse at predicting the future.
Graph Showing the Relation between Expertise and Ability to Forecast
Image from Seersucker Theory Report, presented by Jabe Bloom in “Failing Well.”

While Jabe is applying that research to the startup world, that bit of information made me think about expertise, and how it can cause inertia. Often, you see people who have reached expertise status who, by the nature of their status and also their day-to-day responsibilities, have reached a plateau in terms of their knowledge, ability to innovate or build new experience.

Jabe then shared this quote (around 25:00) by Chris Argyris, a business theorist and Professor Emeritus at Harvard Business School:

Chris Argyris Quote
From the presentation, “Failing Well” by Jabe Bloom.

The people who you think make the best decisions are not always the successful people, says Jabe. He goes on to say that simply by the nature of their training in life – that they’ve always enjoyed success and haven’t been exposed to failure, they actually aren’t the best decision-makers. And what might be even worse is that people like this tend not to own their failures when they do experience them; they tend to hide them.

Jabe then shares this quote by Harold Laski, a 20th century political scientist: “Expertise breeds an inability to accept new views from the very depths of its preoccupation with its own conclusions.”

Think about that in your business environment and in your position. What can you apply from the insight here to yourself and your company?

Innovate Like Startups

First, understand the difference between innovation and expertise.

Definition of Innovate
Definition of “Innovate”


Definition of Expertise
Definition of “Expertise”

Think about this: great experts should be committed to innovation, but great innovators don’t necessarily want to be committed to expertise.

OK, great, innovation, blah, blah, blah. How does one “innovate”?

First know how to identify innovators (hint: you might be one) and harness that energy in the workplace. In a 2012 Forbes Insight study on middle market companies and harnessing innovation to jumpstart growth, research shows innovators have distinct characteristics:

  • They question the status quo.
  • They observe details to detect potential improvements.
  • They network and are exposed to radically different perspectives.
  • They experiment and test new ideas.
  • They apply associational thinking to draw connections between problems or ideas.

Every business has its own little ecosystem, and most of them are flawed in some way. But changing your mindset on how things have “always been done” in your business environment can open up new opportunities to solve challenges. Try new things and be willing to fail (just a little), learn your lessons and work smarter.

Jessica Lee is the founder and chief creative for bizbuzzcontent Inc., a marketing boutique that focuses on digital content strategy and professional writing services for businesses.

See Jessica's author page for links to connect on social media.

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