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.
Martin 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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[Image: Flickr user NunoCardoso]