Have you heard any of the following uttered at your office?
"I'm OK with how things are."
"The timing for this isn't quite right."
"Seems like a lot of pain for such little gain."
"We need more buy-in to do this."
"That may work elsewhere, but not here."
"We tried something like this before, and it didn't work."
These are early warning signs that your once high-spirited startup is vulnerable to what might best be termed "big company sickness." What is it? It's something that preys on very successful small businesses. It goes something like this:
As business begins to boom, the fight-to-survive instinct fades and the entrepreneurial spirit isn’t quite what it was when the company was a startup. Sometimes it’s completely M.I.A. More and more people seem to need more resources to get ideas implemented quickly. Eventually, the ability to flex, react and innovate is lost.
Addicted to Resources
But that’s not how the company began. Maybe it didn’t start in the proverbial basement or garage, but it certainly started with little of everything—money, space and labor. There was a goal, and a passion for reaching it. Those limits made the company more creative and resourceful than it is today. Today, the addiction to resources is blocking innovation.
The good news is that there’s a relatively simple (but not necessarily easy) fix. But before revealing it, it helps to physically experience what I'm referring to, because the complacency in question has a universal presence, no matter how creative or resourceful we think we are.
Stand up, feet planted shoulder width apart, arms straight out at your sides, parallel to the floor, elbows locked. (Imagine Leonardo da Vinci's sketch of the Vitruvian Man if you need a visual reference.)
Now, twist your torso all the way to right as far as you possibly can go. Look down your right arm and mentally mark your stopping point on the wall. Remember that mark.
Now, turn back around to face front. Now close your eyes and repeat the exercise, stopping when you think you’ve met your previous stopping point.
Now…go a little past it. Open your eyes.
Most people surpass their previous mark by a good margin, and are surprised when they do. The point is that we generally don’t know what our potential is until we put our capacity on trial. We don’t stretch the limits of what we are actually capable of. But every business needs to constantly stretch in positive ways to move the business forward, to remain relevant.
The solution is to treat resource constraints the same way artists do. All artists work within the confines of their chosen mediums, and it’s the limits that spur their creativity. The canvas edge, the marble block, the eight musical notes—these are finite resources. It's how we view and manage resource constraints that makes all the difference.
And that’s the key question: Are limited resources preventing innovation, or enabling it?
There’s only one right answer.
A team that doesn’t thrive on the challenge of limitations is a sure sign that big company syndrome is lurking. It signals an inherent fear of failure in your company. And that spells danger for innovation, because most real innovation springs from failure and conflict. The bigger and more successful a company gets, the less they have tolerance for both. So they mismanage a valuable source of new thinking by adding a buffer zone: higher budgets, more layers and lower expectations.
Unfortunately, success usually isn’t what breeds the kind of thinking that produces the extraordinary results needed to add value and keep competitors at bay. In fact, success can often generate a defensive posture that discourages the very behavior that created it. It can absolutely stifle innovation.
Innovation—which is the specific tool of the entrepreneur—demands exploiting limits, not ignoring or lamenting them!
Is the entrepreneurial spirit fading or missing in your business? How can you reset the bar by recreating the kinds of limitations that drive new thinking?
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