If you want to change the world, join a large corporation.
It’s a bold statement, but one which Scott Anthony, Managing Principal at innovation consulting firm, Innosight, was not shy to make during a recent keynote address at the Creative Innovation Conference.
To begin to try to understand how large corporations are uniquely positioned to tackle and solve society’s biggest problems, Anthony says, we must first understand where we’ve come from.
In this time period, there were numerous history-making innovations that can be traced to single people whom Anthony calls Lone Inventors. These include Henry Ford, Gutenberg, and Thomas Edison.
Sure enough, they likely relied on others to help them along, but the magic of their innovations were decidedly their own, and this is manifested in how history credits them as such.
With the heralding of Ford’s assembly lines, the industrial revolution gave way to the beginning of large corporations. Innovations started being mass produced and distributed, with more people than ever benefiting from them. These include sliced bread (Continental), laundry detergent (Proctor & Gamble), film (Kodak), computers (IBM) and more.
These innovations were characterized by their large budgets, aggressive production targets, and scales of distribution that were much wider than ever before.
As corporations grew in size and in number, there also grew a general sense of disenchantment with the growing bureaucracy. Processes seemed to be getting more complex, less risks were taken, and ideas were being trounced.
The result was that individuals started rebelling against corporations in order to band with other like-minded people, bootstrap their way before raising funds from willing investors, and push their own ideas to innovative reality. Prominent examples are the venture-backed teams of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak (Apple); Bill Gates and Paul Allen (Microsoft); Sergey Brin and Larry Page (Google); and the slew of startups since the mid-90s.
It has never been easier to start a business.
The increased global penetration rate of the Internet, the availability of low-cost (and oftentimes free) resources and tools for business building, the spread of inexpensive tutorials and educational platforms (Khan Academy, MOOCs), and the popularity of the Lean Startup movement and coding campaigns, have all coalesced to lead to a lowering of the barriers to entry for first-time business founders.
But the paradox is that with increased entrepreneurship, it is harder to capture value and customers’ attention. There still remains an enormously high percentage of venture-backed failures. Founding a startup is easy, but starting a business remains extremely difficult.
Is it possible then to lead the charge for innovation and social change from large business that already exist? Here are some reasons to suggest why this might be the case:
- Established corporations already have the resources to go after new markets and territories. Provided they unshackle themselves from their golden handcuffs and be mindful of the Innovator’s Dilemma.
- Established businesses have the scale to drive impact across much wider territories
- Established businesses tend to have a more credible (or, at the very least, more known) brands, which can grant them access into places and partnerships that new startups cannot attain.
And, indeed, a number of large organizations have started to infuse their unique capabilities with the agility and wider-perspective thinking of aspiring innovators from the growing entrepreneurial scene.
David Butler, VP of Innovation at The Coca Cola Company says:
“We believe if we can get the starters of the world to build with the scalers of the world, then we’ll see a much larger percentage of startups move to scaleups.”
That’s why Coca Cola has created its Accelerator Program to incubate and mentor entrepreneurs to scaled success, by sharing in on the risks and rewards. Other organizations that are injecting themselves with more entrepreneurial vigor in order to stay ahead of the curve and solve more pressing problems are The New York Times, Syngenta, IBM, Telus Corporation, and Medtronic.
Anthony calls these enablers that corporations should work with Corporate Catalysts. The term was first coined by business writer Dan Coughlin to describe individuals within organizations that have honed their leadership skills and objectives to a point that drives significant positive impact. Anthony pushes this further:
“The [Corporate Catalyst] isn’t the mythical CEO … it’s someone a couple or three levels down an organization who does something special. They bring together the unique difficult-to-replicate assets with those entrepreneurial behaviors and they catalyze them, unleashing impact in the markets that matter to them.”
If we want to change the world, Anthony leaves us with some compelling advice, depending on which side of the spectrum we lie:
Policymakers: Recognize and embrace the growing entrepreneurship movement, but also understand that scaled problems require scaled solutions.
New graduates: It’s okay to start your own company or join a nonprofit, but also consider working for a large company; they are uniquely positioned to do things that only they can do.
Startup Employees: Be mindful of an “Us vs. Them” mentality. Change the language from “disrupting” large companies into “partnering” with them or working through them.