What corporations can learn about innovation from startups

Our Chairman, Jordi Ferrer, was invited to PepsiCo to give a talk on the reality of startups. With 17 years of experience in global management positions within large multinational corporations, and having founded his own startup in the field of Market Research, Jordi has the perspective and knowledge to be able to understand the challenges and advantages of both large corporations and startups.

He was invited to share his story with regards to founding his own startup and views on industry changes with a group of IT European Portfolio Managers at Pepsico. They picked his brain on topics such as digital transformation, innovation and agility and we wanted to share an excerpt of the ideas and conversations that cropped up throughout.

I’ve always been fascinated by innovation, and observed the development of tech as it affected and intersected with the market research industry. The decision to leave a multinational corporation, with its associated comforts and career progression, was one that took 10 years to concretise. The thought haunted me; “I’m here but…” never taking the plunge because my career continued to progress further, taking me all across the world and up the corporate ladder.

It was precisely my experience that progressively gave me the knowledge and perspective to recognise that major innovations were changing our industry, and that big organisational structures were too slow to adapt to them. The realisation that we couldn’t offer our clients the full potential and services that technology made possible, pushed me to explore the possibility that market research could be done better and smarter, founding Snappy Research, and eventually bringing me back here to talk to you today.

While working in market research, I saw that work processes were too slow and research conclusions too belated, which often meant clients wouldn’t receive results in time to make informed business decisions, sidelining research as “nice to know” rather than essential. The limitations to innovation were vast and somewhat intangible, and the vast size of corporations means that organisational constraints limit change. Most importantly, they remain unable to act on industry shifts, despite being able to identify the opportunities for it. In response to this, it’s often thought that acquisition will shortcut the process and immediately bring innovation into the organisation itself, but this only goes so far in substituting ingenuity and creativity. Incorporating a small and agile team can backfire when not done well. If their absorption means adapting to bureaucratic and inflexible organisational structures, their competitiveness and efficiency in the face of industry advances will be lost in favour of standardisation and homologation within corporate processes. Integration is a complex process that will not automatically solve the issues around agility and transformation unless it becomes a vector for change for the larger organisation itself. This brings us full circle to the central issue of transformational change within large organisations.

There’s no formula for cultural change, and I believe it has to happen both ways: bottom-up and top-down. But I’ve often seen organisations fall into a catch 22, where ambitiously large agendas for digital transformation are applied generally and across the board, ironically weighing teams down with further bureaucratic processes. Typical barriers for larger corporations are usually financial, organisational and cultural, rather than talent based. These don’t go away by making a plan for transformation that’s applied generally: overarching digital transformation plans need to empower their teams to enact change within themselves. Teams and individuals have a huge role in pushing for transformation, as they are the most knowledgeable about the issues they face, as well as their potential solutions, while management and executives support the implementation of the changes they need to become more agile. Empowering teams and supporting step by step change will mean removing as many barriers as possible to make teams enact change within themselves.

I’ve become progressively more convinced about one thing: if you’re not agile, you’re dead. I’m incredibly passionate about the concept, and I know, from experience, that in the current landscape you lack competitive advantage without it. In fact, it was while developing the Snappy Research platform that I started understanding the relevance of “digital transformation” in all this, as I saw the power it had in terms of efficiency, innovation and communication. My view of what being digital means has shifted from a static, tech-driven concept, to encompassing both technology and the behaviours and connections that are potentiated by it, which ultimately make people work and live more efficiently. That’s what we’re trying to do within our own company: we’ve created a tool that enables teams to become more agile. It doesn’t need central implementation and can be used by small teams, at specific points and as needed, returning results in real time. It’s what we call Agile Market Research. Corporations can incorporate these tools and let teams become agile in their own terms.

All industries are turning to systems that allow them to work in more agile ways. And where startups are agile by default in how they’re financed and structured, big corporations are often not. But that doesn’t mean that large corporations can’t invest in innovation, in fact, they have all the tools at hand: talent, resources and experience. To harness it we need to understand that change happens from the teams and individuals within them. There’s no one size fits all solution, and change will be contingent on your industry, your work and how your team is organised, even your team members’ temperament.

Whatever your position, whether within a large corporation or as the founder of your own business or startup, I encourage you to take agility as the basis of your work. Starting with smaller and manageable goals will allow you to recognise the strategies that work and make implementation smooth and realistic. Exploring possibilities in your workflows and avoiding being overly rigid in bureaucratic processes will make you aware and proactive to competition. Be quick to re-evaluate the moment that a strategy is not giving you what you want; be ready to change direction. Delegate, brainstorm, and innovate: trust your team to provide.

Ultimately, everyone contributes to your transformational change, from top-level management and executives to the most recent and junior addition to your team. Individuals compose organisations and they are the ones to change them, in real-time.