Oil and Water: Why Corporations and Startups Rarely Mix

what you know limits what you can imagine

Illustration by Christian Laborin

There are many  experienced, talented and well intentioned people who are, without knowing, blockers to innovation. I’ve seen and experienced this way too many times, and experienced it again recently while advising iAir Platform; who have developed a potentially ground breaking technology that could be used in the various industries with a wide variety of applications.

First a little background. The proof of concept was developed by someone who has amateur expertise in aeronautics using things you can find in your home and buy at Home Depot. Pretty cool, huh?

To take the proof of concept to the next level we need deeper expertise and funding. So, we started looking for talent in the aeronautics industry. Which takes me to this question: What happens when executive level talent from a highly regulated industry try to join a fast moving startup?

This is important because who you hire, fire and promote make up your culture.

This is a common occurrence, yet it usually happens in the growth stage of a new venture after achieving market-fit; not at the start. Collaboration between corporate trained people and startup founders is hard, especially when solutions can be applied to a highly regulated industry like aeronautics.

Corporate behemoths have layers of processes, and management that need to sign off on new projects. So Executives that come from a highly corporate structure will have issues adapting to the way a startup needs to move: fast.

Making this collaboration harder is protocol, they’re used to doing it in a certain way. While a startup certainly wants to do things the right way, it needs to move fast. Because, unlike large corporations, a startup doesn’t have deep pockets and resources to throw around.

All of this creates lots of tension in how to achieve a vision. Why is it so hard for people with deep expertise and years of experience to adapt to the way a startup operates?

What you know limits what you can imagine

In this particular situation, aeronautics is highly regulated; with good reason. But, frankly, we’re not building an airliner. So we don’t need to go through so much protocol, nor do we need to match the way decisions get made in the industry.

Following a tried and true formula that works in one context doesn’t necessarily translate in another. Believing so is hubris, and it’s very common. Success breeds failure. And failing to believe there is another way is a failure of imagination.

When you’ve had success doing things in a certain way you develop a disease: the curse of knowledge.

Expertise is the enemy of innovation, it’s one of the main challenges established organizations must face in order to make innovation happen. You will have issues when an outsider comes in with established ideas on how things should get done because that’s how they’ve always done things and they can’t imagine doing it any other way; especially if they’ve spent all of their working life in a corporate environment and got rewarded for following the rules.

How do you solve this?

Question assumptions

Every assumption is an opportunity for innovation, so the way to challenge the curse of knowledge is to question assumptions. To start, simply ask (as I did): why is it done this way and why do we have to?

Rarely does the way things get done get challenged, usually it’s the how the technology works. You will find ample areas of opportunity to get better in taking a cold hard look and questioning the process by which you do things; especially if it’s gone unchallenged for many years and you need to move fast.

Developing a culture of innovation starts from day one, and in the big scheme of things today and in the future the biggest threat to innovation is culture:

the biggest threat to innovation is culture

Startups and corporations have different cultures, they’re like oil and water. One moves slow, the other moves fast and adapts.

A culture of innovation isn’t something you do, it’s something you are. Sometimes, who you think and believe you are interferes with who you could be. The reason is because the vast amounts of knowledge and experience you’ve accumulated blocks you from imagining a different way and reinventing yourself.