Entrepreneurship in Large Organisations

 Big organisations can’t rely on being just big anymore. They need to behave much more like entrepreneurs: more agile, more curious, more iterative, less set in their ways, less complacent. Yet the two worlds, that of big organisations and that of entrepreneurs, couldn’t be further apart. Why is that?

It’s obviously a sweeping generalisation, but I think it would be fair to say that most large corporations have entrepreneurship somewhere in their DNA. But, by their own admission, many are miles away from being entrepreneurial.

And it’s not only organisations. The people that work within them, sometime in the past, surely dreamed of changing the world and were excited to go to work each day. But rarely is that the day-to-day reality of work. From the outside, it’s easy to wonder why ‘suits’ behave as they do, but it’s important to remember that no one dreams of becoming a bureaucrat and making it their life’s work to stymie innovation. So where – both within companies and their employees – did all that entrepreneurial spirit go?

In many cases, that spirit was left behind consciously. It’s the old thinking that a company moves along a timeline. It starts as entrepreneurial, fast moving and bursting with passion but, as it grows (which is itself a reward for all that entrepreneurial effort), it moves towards the other end of the spectrum where organisations become fully ‘professional’. Young companies are entrepreneurial but they ‘grow up’ and leave all that craziness and chaos behind in order to develop serious professional structures.

‘Professional’ worked back in the 1980s and 1990s but not now. A professional set up has an inherent slowness and complacency that just doesn’t work anymore. So the key for organisations is to take a few steps away from being professional back towards their roots, which are by definition entrepreneurial. Yes, you must have structures and discipline, but you also have to recapture some of that entrepreneurial spirit.

I believe in this strongly because I wish this is what I had done when the company my brother and I started, Coffee Republic, got big. We believed in that old school thinking, in the evolutionary lifecycle of business as explained by Amar Bhide in The Evolution and Origin of New Business. Businesses mirror human biology, he argues, moving from baby to toddler to adolescent and finally adulthood. So when the company we started from our kitchen table grew to 110 coffee bars, we felt like parents of an adult child. The company we’d brought into the world and raised didn’t need entrepreneurs any more. It needed professionals to deal with its adult state. So we actively set about destroying the company’s entrepreneurial culture. We hired professionals with proper CVs and asked them to set up structures and hierarchy. We built a proper head office that made us look and feel like a big company, not a shoddy start-up fuelled by passion alone.

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