in Innovation

Penetrating The Corporate Immune System

Startup mentors can be great executive educators

I was on a mentor panel at a big event once with a corporate executive who was really organized. Unlike the rest of us, he’d actually read the startup profiles. He had a tidy list of questions. The questions were mostly common to all and were along the lines of ‘Do you have a patent?’ and ‘What are your profit margins?’

He quickly caught on that many of his questions weren’t relevant in the given context and that he was applying big company, established product KPIs to products and services that were only just being developed. As the day progressed, he discretely put a line through one question after the next. He probably learned more than any of us that day.

What matters and what does not

We didn’t care about patents. (One question crossed out). We talked to customers before we had a finished product. (Another question crossed out). We didn’t worry if all the bugs were fixed before showing a product to customers. (Another question crossed out). We didn’t put much weight on projections that went past two years. (Another…).

Learning effect

The panel was a great example of the power of peer teaching. Our corporate panelist was obviously competent. His insights on how big businesses work were concise and crystal clear. At the same time, his shrinking list of stock questions was clear proof that he was learning plenty about startups and innovation from us.

Having trouble embracing failure?

CEOs who want their managers to use failure productively first need to help them learn when and how to accept failure. A day on a panel of peers who accept that some failures are inevitable, and even laugh as they tell stories about their own failures, can do more to change perceptions than a lifetime subscription to the Harvard Business Review.

Even experienced managers hate mistakes

They usually focus on efficiently doing something they already know how to do. They’re used to incrementally improving performance. Step change improvements require bold experiments whose outcomes cannot be known with certitude beforehand. Mistakes are common in rapidly iterating startups because they focus learning by experimentation.

Like scientists, startups do experiments to create the data they need to find the answers they need. A negative result is just as important as a positive result. Mistakes that teach you something are valuable. Alexander Fleming’s failure to keep a tidy laboratory gave us penicillin. In most firms, he would have been fired.

This makes perfect sense

You can read about the benefits of learning from mistakes, but a career in a climate that punishes mistakes makes it hard to accept them in practice. Companies that want to change their view of failure need to help their leaders’ change their view of failure. We can’t expect people to learn this on their own.

Mentoring can take the edge off learning hard lessons

Entrepreneurs, investors, and startup mentors appeal to corporate types for a number of reasons: the dynamism, the perceived freedom of action, the innovation, and the hoodies. It’s also a world where, for once, they’re not expected to have all of the answers. They can lower their guard and be open to suggestion.

Like a lot of corporate people new to startups, he wasn’t used to being in a stuation where he didn’t have all the answers. Unlike some, however, it didn’t take him long to see what he had to offer startups and how to present it. Our panel’s corporate guy was a quick learner – and it turned out he also had a lot to teach the rest of us mentors.

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