Remodel Your Meetings To Create Internal Entrepreneurs

Imagine going to work on a Monday, only to find that everything in your work environment changed overnight. The corporate reception area is gone, along with the receptionist, who could barely be bothered to acknowledge the likes of you, anyway. The corporate vision and "Have A Great Day" signs are down, and the surly security guard is nowhere in sight.

As you make your way upstairs, you are greeted by the directors of the company--people you know only by their appearance in corporate videos and their profile pictures in the company's annual report. Miraculously, they greet you by name and warmly invite you to attend a brainstorming session, explaining, "We need to get things back on track." This is completely from left-field, considering they've never so much as nodded to you before.

An invitation to suggest change is an anathema. After all, you've become accustomed to your ideas and suggestions being rebuffed. How many times you've been dismissed with, "Aw, we tried that three years ago, and it never worked," or "Legal tells us that we can't do it," or "That will take at least 18 months to secure an approval." But at this very moment, every obstacle you've encountered over the years seems to slip away. I forgot to mention that legal, compliance, human resources and operations have, overnight, changed their attitude, too. Suddenly they're responding with bouquets of optimism and positivity; "That sounds exciting, let's investigate the possibilities," and "Fascinating concept, so let's see what the design team can come up with."

In less than two hours, everything is radically transformed. Each new idea is nurtured, explored and tested rather than flatly rejected with one negative cliché after another. The glass is suddenly perceived as half-full rather than relegated to its usual half-empty status. As instructed, BlackBerrys and iPhones are turned off. No-one is receiving or sending messages. There are no emails. The focus is absolute. Good ideas are immediately locked in. People claim responsibility for tasks. Small groups are formed to set plans in motion. Deadlines are set for the next month, as opposed to the next year. After the meeting, everyone leaves with a one-page summary of all the decisions.

Just as you're about to leave the meeting, your alarm goes off. It's 6.30 a.m., and you feel swamped with disappointment when you realise it was just one big delightful dream.

But why should it be that way? Why can't big corporations become entrepreneurial? Given the fact that it's these very big corporations that are often wounded by entrepreneurial start-ups, it really is time for them to look more carefully at the way corporations become rigid and stymied by their own entrenched culture. As Gene Hackman said to Will Smith in the spy thriller Enemy of the State, "Turn the strength of the enemy into their weakness. If they're big, they're inflexible."

This is what entrepreneurial means to me: fast, furious, impulsive, courageous, bold, aligned, as little bureaucracy as possible and a general sense that you can walk on water.

Let's spend five minutes making your company entrepreneurial. First things first: line up all the obstacles that present themselves on a daily basis--the restrictions, barriers, problems and complications. Then, beside each point, describe the scenario from a start-up's perspective. Bear in mind that committees rarely come up with great ideas and breakthrough concepts. So, why have them?

The first thing I do during the course of my change-agent work for Fortune 100 companies is to establish the 4:30 rule. The maximum number of people in any meeting should be four, and meetings should never last any longer than 30 minutes. No phones allowed. You may think this a little radical but, if you want to act entrepreneurial, then these are the most important steps to take.

Then demonstrate real courage (as opposed to the sort of courage written about in your vision statement). Be prepared to offend. Every environment that values transparency will have its detractors and those who will always take offense. Some of the greatest entrepreneurs of our time are predisposed to ruffling a few feathers--think Richard Branson, head of the Virgin Group. By this I mean making decisions that are so bold that people can't stop talking about them, so courageous that you become afraid of the competition getting a hold of the information, and so outrageous that you don't need to invest millions promoting them because they tend to promote themselves.

But here's probably the most surprising element of all: Don't give yourself too much time. I am regularly heard saying that we can change everything in 48 hours. "Impossible", "ridiculous", "outrageous" are but some of the usual responses I receive, but what's really surprising is that it is entirely possible. If you're able to get the right people into one room over two days, the stage is set. Make sure the room is far from the office and prep everyone on the notion that it's essential to not only come up with ideas for change, but actually lock them in by the end of the second day. If the incentive is great enough, and everyone's prepared to roll up their sleeves, in my experience, it will happen.

Corporate America once set the standard for the world. It represented boldness, innovation, and courage, but more recently its energy appears to be flagging. That doesn't mean it's lost. It just means that companies will need to look for the ingredients that served to form its foundations. They will need to re-establish the pillars that made it all possible and then fuel it with resources that have perhaps lain dormant for a while. Another dream scenario? Not necessarily, it's up to you. You already have everything you need to make it a reality.

What's your experience with this? I'd love to hear what worked for you and, of course, what didn't.

BrandwashedMartin Lindstrom is a 2009 recipient of TIME Magazine's "World's 100 Most Influential People" and author of Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy (Doubleday, New York), a New York Times and Wall Street Journal best--seller. His latest book, Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy, was published in September. A frequent advisor to heads of numerous Fortune 100 companies, Lindstrom has also authored 5 best-sellers translated into 30 languages. More at martinlindstrom.com.

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13 Comments

  • Peter Sayburn

    Nice article Martin and great advice.  We face similar challenges in large corporations in the UK.  In fact we set up a new company Market Gravity specifically to foster Corporate Entrepreneurship and drive innovation in big businesses.  In my experience for any disruptive innovation to flourish within a big company, leaders needs to create sufficient space and independence from the core business to let the "corporate entrepreneurs" get on with it!  When this happens the results are spectacular!

    Peter Sayburn
    www.marketgravity.com

  • Mark Charters

    Courage is the keyword. Getting locked into over-analytical and ponderous ways of working truly are barriers to innovation and progress. I shall be suggesting the 4;30 meeting format to my CEO. Nice idea.

  • Bas Mennink

    Nice! I believe it works! But.....i've worked in a large company where i was hired to 'be entrepreneurial and creative'. I got very much frustrated by the obstacles mentioned in the article.

    I spent a lot of time trying to change corporate culture, but my voice just didn't become loud enough.
    In the end I went into the boardroom with a proposal that would allow employees to work on what they thought was important without any risk for the company. The company would actually benefit from what they did. I had teams ready to start.
    They called my proposal brilliant, but said corporate culture wouldn't allow it. On the way out of the boardroom i got an advice: do this in secret.
    Frustrated but also amused i left and quit my job.

    The above tells a story about fear. As long as upper management is in fear, actions for change are bound to fail. They want to, but even if you show them how, and even if they agree, they still have a problem.
    I agree with Barry. In topdown management approaches it starts with the CEO.
    Change -> fear. Either become visionary and courageous or build enough trust.

    So, i'm convinced that change can be made almost overnight. But i think that if there is a way to make CEO's more courageous, we need to talk about that.

  • David Kaiser, PhD

    I think the transparency piece is critical. At too many companies, people don't speak their minds for fear of offending or being seen as heretics. That will not do. Every great organization values forthrightness and boldness.

    David Kaiser
    Executive Coach and CEO
    www.DarkMatterConsulting.com

  • Kevin Kuske

    Great article and so true. As part of an entrepreneurial startup housed inside a larger company we work on this every day and your tips are good ones ! One of my best stories was when the venture just started the team was challenged to come up with 1 prototype of the new product EACH week.  This was at a time that the typical product development cycle was 12 -36 months.  Needless to say they thought the challenge was crazy bordering on absurd !  The funny thing was a few weeks in they were regularly coming in with 3 NEW design iterations each week !

  • David Kaiser, PhD

    Kevin, I love it, they challenged you to do somethign that seemed absurd and impossible, and you outdid it! I assume that the big parent company was willing to give you space and they weren't squashing your ideas? Anyway, I woul dlove to hear more about how ya'll were able to maintain your autonomy in that environment.

    David Kaiser
    Executive Coach and CEO
    www.DarkMatterConsulting.com

  • Doug Collins

    Thought provoking article. I took a similar approach in drafting a speech that a CEO delivers to their organization, announcing the
    launch of their collaborative innovation program, the Idea Juggernaut.

    http://tinyurl.com/3txq8un

  • Leo Toribiio

    There are some American companies that are much like you describe, Google, 3M Corp., and Texas Instruments are good examples.  However, in my own experience with companies I've worked for, I programmed solutions to problems that were plaguing those companies, solutions that were perfectly marketable, and when I suggested that they should seek to market those solutions to other companies, they rejected the idea.  In at least one case, a company was started in another state to market an application very similar to one of my solutions, and it is worth noting that my employers were having severe financial problems, at least one of them ended up in bankruptcy.

    Leo Toribio
    Pittsburgh, PA

  • iMeet

    Love the idea of short meetings that get a lot accomplished (especially the 4:30 rule). Great article and wonderful ideas to keep company progress moving forward. 

  • atimoshenko

    A corporation is like an army whose victories are measured in profit. As long as these two conditions in place (and especially the first one), a big corporation will never be entrepreneurial.

  • Barry Carbaugh

    I am a Martin Lindstrom fan so I think this article is great. Innovation has to take place in the type of culture he describes. Unfortunately, many times corporate America is geared to reducing risk and some feel that new ideas may be risky. I find this culture has to be driven by the CEO. Otherwise an idea fire will be started and eventually doused. If the CEO is driving innovative culture change and is consistent everyone will follow.