Are you learning fast enough? You may need to join a startup to keep your mind (and career) alive

I have been thinking a lot about the challenges facing large organizations that want to become more agile and innovative. Two conversations I had recently bought these challenges into focus.

The first was with a visiting Professor of Business and Entrepreneurship who consults to corporations. ‘Corporate leaders don’t want to talk about entrepreneurship’, he told me. ‘They say: “Whenever we talk about entrepreneurship, our best people get excited and leave!”’. These leaders really should ask why their best people are so excited about entrepreneurship and what they can do to harness this passion. Entrepreneurship is a risky career. It’s all perks and no benefits. The majority of professionals would prefer to play out their entrepreneurial dreams within the security of an organization, if only the organization would let them.

The second conversation was with my friend Emmanuel (‘Manu’) Musa, an Italian social innovation consultant and co-founder of the collaborative innovation platform, Babele. Manu had been talking to a large French public sector organization, who told him: ‘We need more entrepreneurship and innovation, otherwise our best people will leave’.

I was puzzled by the contradiction. On the one hand, we have companies who are trying to keep their employees by making space for innovation in the workplace. On the other hand we have companies that are doing precisely the opposite thing to achieve the same effect. What links these cases is the realization that in all these companies, the best people are desperate to learn about technology, entrepreneurship and innovation.

Manu put this in context for me. ‘Technology is changing so fast’, he told me, ‘you’re either keeping up or falling behind. Many professional people feel stuck in their jobs and incapable of keeping pace with technological change’.

This is right on the money. Five years ago, when everyone was talking about big data, people felt on top of change. Today, with the rise of AI, machine learning, blockchain, biotech, virtual and augmented reality technologies, wearables and ubiquitous computing, it seems impossible to keep up with the torrent of disruption without throwing oneself into the thick of it.

Subscribing to Wired and taking a few night classes aren’t enough. Realistically, the only way to keep up is to be working with teams at the coalface, experimenting with new technologies and exploring applications. This is what entrepreneurs do. It’s no wonder professionals want to step into the ring. There is so much happening, they need to breathe that atmosphere. Anyone outside the entrepreneurial space is just not learning fast enough.

Factor in the insight that many jobs won’t be around in 10 years time, and you can understand why people feel anxious. Senior leaders really aren’t doing enough to address these anxieties. When employees tell their leaders how anxious they feel about their jobs, pace of learning, and the future, leaders typically do one of two things. Either they ignore the problem, brushing it under the carpet, perhaps worried about triggering a groundswell of interest in entrepreneurship that will cost them employees, or they address it in the wrong way, hiring a team of consultants for a change management program.

Epic fail. Large scale organizational change management is exactly the wrong approach to take in this situation.

Change management is the wrong approach because it strips power from employees precisely when they’re asking to be empowered. It makes people feel like cogs in a machine, when they want to feel like founders who can launch new ventures. If you want to lose your best people to startups, start a change management program. To keep these people, you need to empower them in their contexts of work, not give their power to consultants.

Another point against change management is that it’s way too slow. A change management program can take months or years to complete. By the time the dust has settled, a new generation of technologies is on the scene and the company is none the wiser. High-growth learning organizations empower small teams to engage with emerging technologies to figure out ways of applying them to the company mission. A company doesn’t need a massive restructuring program to achieve this. It needs an entrepreneurial leader who is prepared to make space for lots of customer experiments and hacking.

It really does come down to leadership. Corporate shareholders may be impressed by a change management program, but all it says to entrepreneurial employees is that the CEO doesn’t get it. The best people today are crying out for agile management, small teams, exposure to the startup scene, and the opportunity to prototype opportunities the lean startup way. The organization as a whole doesn’t need to change to make this happen. Often, however, changes in senior leadership are urgently required.

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Tim Rayner is the author of Hacker Culture and the New Rules of Innovation (Routledge 2018). He teaches at UTS Business School in Sydney.

Co-founder @PhaseOneInsights. Teaches innovation and entrepreneurial leadership at UTS Business School. ‘Hacker Culture and the New Rules of Innovation’ (2018)