The Founders | TechStars Boulder | Episode 1 “The Selected Few” from Andrew on Vimeo.

Company incubators are not a new idea, but I did enjoy watching this video about entrepreneurs working with experienced leaders to launch a new idea. My immediate thought is that so many great ideas are squashed by corporate cultures that, in a way, these things are a sad result of leadership failures. There are some tech companies, like Google with its famous 20% free time to selected engineers, or other tech shops that have a VC arm to them, but what would it take for a company to have the entrepreneurial spirit/culture that truly churns out breakthrough new ideas, even if they might not be directly related to the core business?

Speed and trust are oxygen to entrepreneurs (or intrapreneurs); they need to be able to iterate quickly and they have to trust that they can achieve their dream. Their belief allows them to push themselves across what others would see as an impossible gap or barrier. My belief is that it starts with the following components:

Vision – Something so big and important to people that they feel it must happen and they must be part of it. This means that self selection into a company or organization supported by super high hiring / filtering standards is essential because you need crazy zealots who dream big and are unafraid to throw out the old assumptions to create something better.

Values – My colleague Allison Stern gave me this great quote on values: values are the “why” for individuals, just like an organization’s purpose is the “why” for itself. In other words, values are there in service of the larger team purpose and they absolutely should be the things that motivate people in their personal and private lives. Most organizations have values that are really, really boring and I would have a hard time living my personal life according to them. BUT…if your values were so energizing to people because they are a bridge to something powerful, than it’ll be a natural fit and people will operate “in tune” with each other.

In an established organization the leadership team and culture need to be supportive, and indeed ask for and reward, constant innovation across every aspect of the business. Measure, improve, and celebrate…measure, improve, and celebrate…repeat after me!

So when your Accounting Clerk figures out a way to shave 20 minutes from an A/P form, celebrate. She can’t be the only one in Accounting trying to figure out ways to make it easier for the organization to achieve its purpose! Everyone in Accounting is fundamentally there to achieve the organization’s purpose but way too many people just want to join a company, and play it safe. They don’t believe in the company purpose or they’re afraid to step outside of the expected ways of behaving. Doing this might be the most satisfying career experience of their life…but they need a champion, role models, and expectations around constant improvement in order for it to happen.

For product / service innovation it gets more complicated because people are b-u-s-y with their day jobs and product innovation is secondary to defending or maximizing your investments or turf. So you settle on things, when in reality it should be about deeply listening to your customers, hearing their challenges and wish-lists, and figuring out how you can incorporate that into your organization. Entrepreneurs usually start companies because something “bugs them” but for some reason working in a company numbs people to this itch. So if you want a company and people working for you that truly change the world you have to constantly have challenges for break through thinking instead of just meeting this quarter’s balanced scorecard objectives. Both need to happen, but figure out ways for big new ideas to happen.

A simple way is to have monthly contests or green light sessions where employees can literally go in front of the CEO and a few other dreamers and pitch their ideas. Could be for things around the core product line, or complementary products, or something completely different. You can start with giving them time off to create a prototype, and if things progress, more staff or perhaps some seed money to go off and start up a company. If they take off, you make some money hopefully from the launch but more importantly your employer brand gets huge marks for innovation and supporting big ideas. Mid and senior level manages can be challenged by this because they’re the ones running the product / service development processes so people need to see this as an “and” not an “or”. Make the innovation pitches happen for anyone across the processes, so even the normal product iteration cycle is fun, wacky and productive. Lastly, make it safe and celebrate everyone’s participation. It’s not whether the product is green-lit or not, it’s whether people learned things from the experience.

These things are easier said than done, but imagine the power of fully engaged, crazy happy employees who want to change the world, one process / service / product at a time. Does your shop encourage or discourage innovation? Do you explicitly expect constant improvements in the core processes? Do you celebrate the destruction of old or nasty processes or requirements (at Netscape we used to paraphrase CEO Jim Barksdale by saying we had just shot the snake…)? If you’re not doing this, why not?