The primary goal for startup founders is to find a unique business solution for a problem that exists in the world and then find a way to scale it that orchestrates economic, societal or business change. Innovation like that is difficult, though.
It can be done — creating a new market segment, spinning up a new coding language, designing and patenting a new product that the world has never seen before — but innovation is always an uphill battle.
The key to overcoming the challenge, then? Find distinct opportunities for collaborative innovation rather than outright disruption both in the market and in your own organization. Where incumbents in an industry may not be perfect, they have likely spent many years or decades developing parts of their system that go unnoticed and work almost flawlessly. Creating those systems from scratch can become a huge burden for new players in a space, and those companies won’t just lend their expertise there for free.
Entrepreneurs shouldn’t aim for disruption in the traditional “upending an entire system or industry” sense. They should instead think of it, and their business, as finding a formative restructuring to the current model or as a healing approach that fixes flaws in the system. They can then clearly define an approach to fixing it and making the world better for their customers when and where incumbent players in the space are unwilling or unable to improve.
Business collaboration and partnership isn’t all kumbaya. If there’s a reasonable enough market cap, startups can be both useful to consumers and transformative to established industries. Whether the goal is to streamline a business model or solve operational challenges inherent to an industry, startups can offer solutions by being more nimble than the entrenched current players, but success will require a bit of give and take.
Look at Uber’s approach, for example. It took cues from the pizza delivery industry to build out elements of its own structure, such as pricing transparency and on-demand options. Then, it applied them to the taxi model. Now, the company is hitting $11.27 billion in revenue and climbing.
Uber didn’t just create a random idea and market a widget from scratch. Its creators identified an opportunity to innovate and — while imperfect — brought about disruption by aggressively pursuing a better model than what the taxi companies were initially able to provide.
“Disruption” tends to carry a negative connotation because of the speed at which it happens and the challenges it creates. Working within a set system can be expensive and even hinder growth for new companies. But it can also be a positive in industries, such as insurance and finance, where stability and reliability are crucial to long-term success. Disruption doesn’t always happen quickly. Sometimes, it can take years or even decades for policy to catch up to the technological innovations that drive change.
It takes outside players, outside perspectives and fluid company policy initiatives to create the perfect conditions for collaborative innovation. Industry disruption is an imperfect process, but it’s revolutionary when done the right way and in tandem with others.
The end of “us vs. them”
While market disruption is a common goal in the startup world, most founders don’t always approach it with the proper mindset. Rather than adopting a “growth at all costs” mindset, finding a balance between monetization and model innovation is a more measured approach that will ensure reliability and satisfaction for customers and investors alike. And that balance starts from within.
Disruption can rapidly become a contentious and political effort within companies themselves. When workplace culture shifts toward one of tribal politics, it can undermine both company values and business initiatives. When companies are on a mission to take down established players, tensions can arise because of friction introduced within systems that are already in place when those companies are also partners.
It’s easy to suggest the solution most often offered up — to cancel the previous program and replace it with something newer and better. But that isn’t always practical. Instead, successful workplace disruption requires a regular reevaluation of existing ways of doing in order to keep communication efficient and integrations smooth.
Slash-and-burn approaches to company policies create an “us vs. them” mentality that sews internal distrust between teams and tribalism. When this happens, it can undermine your business’s success. The key to sustained innovation is to develop a model and methodology to identify and keep what is working, amend what is just OK or underperforming and let your team organically grow with the programs that make the most sense for the business’s needs.
And when growing, find a middle ground. Create new ideas and ways of doing things in a fluid way to meet what the team needs and wants, and foster a culture in which people can feel ownership over their day-to-day work.
According to Gallup’s global database, only one in three employees say they trust their own company’s leadership. To prevent being categorized this way by the teams or industries you’re changing, build a collaborative culture that makes disruption a seamless part of operations instead of a role-oriented mandate from HR that leaves people or partners feeling left out and left behind.
Collaboration creates community
Everyone in a company should be on the same page and working toward common goals. When a team collaborates to be part of building and living out a culture of innovation, it gives everyone the chance to build the workplace and the product solutions of their dreams. Voices get to be heard, and people are empowered to bring their ideas to light. And at the same time, people gain perspective about the challenges other departments are facing.
I hire people who want to build the future — entrepreneurial self-starters who aren’t afraid of rolling up their sleeves to get work done if and when they see something that needs to improve. Often, those people don’t want to be told what to do, how to work, or when and where to do certain things. It’s important to understand that an open dialogue is both a business tool and a flexible model for workplace innovation.
Be wary of burnout, too. At Health IQ, we very recently received feedback from longstanding team members that expressed a willingness to have more fun. When we got to the core of it, we learned that they weren’t bringing solutions to the table because they had so much to get through in a day that they didn’t want to lean in and create more new solutions. A lean team can only get you so far, and people can only do so much. So we did something about it.
We promoted a member of our team to build a companywide engagement program like those typically only seen at massive corporations. We want to feature and celebrate the best of who we are in the same ways we celebrate our clients. We’ve appointed culture and fun committees in all of our offices to integrate more of our core values into daily practice.
As a result, we now have movement reminders (much like those regular Apple Health or Garmin push notifications) that go out on Slack every day to get colleagues active together in simple, meaningful ways that don’t interrupt the workday — 10 pushups here, 30 jumping jacks there. The team wants to do more group outings, too, so we’ve added monthly hikes and “happy and healthy hours” for all new employees to get to know the team they’ve joined.
Building a kind, collaborative disruption
So how can up-and-coming founders strike the necessary balance of getting a seat at the table with a dialed-in team without dismantling that table in the process? Here are four ways to start:
1. Throw your hat into the ring
Start building a better workplace by getting directly involved with the decisions being made, and find solutions when you encounter friction. Newer company leaders with their finger on the pulse of the organization often feel or experience something others are also feeling but haven’t yet voiced. Existing leadership may not be aware of or may be in denial about problems, so coming together and proposing a solutions can be a powerful driver for innovation and a good way to garner both team and partner support.
2. Bring solutions without pointing fingers
3. Focus on collaboration
If there is an existing framework for engagement or feedback, use it. Work with established teams by inviting them to be a part of your vision of an improved operation. Getting the support of team members at all levels, whether they are officially or unofficially given a title that says they should be a leader on the issue, requires a bit of forward thinking but will bolster your efforts in the long run. Get as many people as possible involved in building the culture of a workplace and of industry partnerships, and collaboratively define the expectations of your company to gain consensus about the problem and then explore the avenues to finding a solution together.
4. Build a framework for feedback and change
Let your company values and mission act as pillars for the team. When partners and team members both know what values they’re standing for and striving toward, they have an easier and friendlier starting point for flexible change and innovation.
Disruption doesn’t require reinventing the whole system in which your company operates or obliterating the one that exists. Instead, forging a new path that’s harmonious with the one that came before it will make the journey toward success smoother and one that doesn’t leave destruction in its wake.