Environment, talent, and process all encourage the growth of innovation, according to IT research firm CEB, which was recently acquired by Gartner.
But there’s a balancing act that must take place between structure and exploration — especially for smaller companies on a fast upward growth curve.
“I think an important part of anyone starting a company is that you have to think through how to create a team as you become more successful,” says Sarah Bird, of SEO software company Moz.
The culture needs to invite innovation, she says – but it’s still crucially important, especially as a company grows, to maintain a kind of structure that holds the company together.
Company leaders must not become addicted to small incremental improvements, Bird says.
“Instead, you need to build a company that balances incremental improvements and expertise, and still taking explorations,” she says.
Growth and success – for Moz, and many other startups-turned-tech trailblazers – come with a company culture that allows both.
“You need a culture where you think, ‘Hey if this is running well, what else is out there?’” she says. “As a small company before you have any success, it’s much easier to find people who are all about exploring. The larger you get, the harder it is to strike that balance.”
But also, the larger a company grows, the more important the culture becomes. Bird says that at Moz, the leadership has invested a lot in making sure that the company values that inspire culture are well articulated to employees. For Moz, much of what has inspired cultural change within the company was the focus on building a supportive community.
Many startups that have grown into large, successful technology leaders base their cultural values around the customer. At software platform development company Dispatch, the company’s fixation on providing the best service for the customer means that even new employees might need to travel. At meal delivery service company Lish, focus on the customer is one of the company’s three core values.
And at in-store analytics company RetailNext, employees are driven to stay several steps ahead in order to best serve their customers, and that is part of the key to balancing procedure with the freedom to come up with solutions.
“An organization needs to quickly recognize an opportunity to improve if its team members can see how a customer – either internal or external – will eventually be impacted in a negative way,” says Ray Hartjen, marketing director at RetailNext. “Early warning signs often include a break down within the teams in helpful, effective communication, a tendency to point fingers first instead of solving problems, and the creeping in of an ‘us versus them’ mentality.”
A small startup is not ever going to operate like a big brand name company can, and though it might get there one day, in the beginning it’s important for smaller companies to avoid falling into the trap of acting like a big one, Hartjen says. Strong communication and problem solving are essential tools that employees can use to innovate solutions to problems – if they are granted that slack to do so.
“There should be no impediments to good communication and effective problem-solving,” Hartjen says.
Some procedures should be in place with a hard line, though, and every company is different in deciding which ones can be taken on a more case-by-case basis.
“At RetailNext, we take care to not create procedures and processes around the lowest common denominator,” Hartjen says. “Rather, we want to develop and empower everyone on the team to perform at the highest common denominator. We’re constantly on a vigil to not create new processes just to address one-off situations that are either unlikely to occur again or the result of something that can be coached up. We want our associates to be responsible and accountable, and empowered to critically think and act. We don’t want an unnecessary level of bureaucratic rules to get in the way.”
Of course, there are situations where a more rigid approach needs to be taken, he says. Data security, privacy, employment law, and customer satisfaction are non-negotiables at RetailNext. One of the most valuable balancing acts happens when an employee is caught “in the act of being right,” Hartjen says.
“In a small company, you also have to be aware of any burgeoning ‘hero complexes,’ where exceptional performance is being achieved by the exceptional efforts of one or a very few team members,” he says. “That’s a good thing at first, but can grow to become a bad thing, as scalable growth is just not achievable. It’s important to try to institutionalize a hero’s knowledge, work practices, and work ethic, and foster its growth across the entire team.”
April Nowicki is a contributor at Street Fight.