Fernando Fischmann

Three Keys To Create A Great Startup Culture

25 February, 2016 / Articles

With the constant pressure of customers’ demands for more and more value and the market’s relentless drive for quarterly expectations of increased profits, where is the room or time for innovation? Large companies struggle to innovate under this constant pressure to deliver. Yet, small, entrepreneurial companies thrive on innovation and have the freedom to try, test and keep or discard new ideas – a true startup culture.

What could a startup culture look like inside your company? The creativity for innovation can’t be forced or mandated so you need to create an environment that fosters creative thinking, provides a safe place to fail, stimulates collaboration, and passes no judgment on ideas – where all ideas are equal.

  1. Create A Safe Place To Fail

We learn more from our mistakes than we do from our successes. There is an urban legend about a major shoe making company where an up and coming vice president designed a shoe, spent 10 million dollars getting it to market, and it was a total disaster. Sales were dismal. The VP cautiously entered the CEO’s office and immediately said, “I know you are going to fire me and I totally understand.” To this the CEO replied, “No, I’m not going to fire you. I just spent 10 million dollars training you.”

People must feel that they can fail without serious repercussions so they can take risks in the pursuit of new ideas. One formidable architecture firm who designed professional basketball stadiums was fearful of failing in front of a client. Before any design was presented for customer review, it had to be approved by one of the seven owners. With 100 architects in the firm, this was an arduous task and not only did it slow down getting feedback from clients, it limited new ideas from emerging. Realizing that they, as the owners, were the problem, they created a safe place for their architects to fail. Before a design was presented to a client, an internal meeting was held where the architect presented her design to anyone in the firm who wanted to attend. Any major flaws were found before coming up short in front of the customer.

To open the doors of innovation you need to create a culture that allows failure, where they will not be reprimanded for their mistakes but are encouraged to learn and adapt.

  1. Create A Culture Of Collaboration

Great innovation comes from collaboration. Bouncing ideas off each other in conversation of proof of concept helps everyone explore faster, take risks together, and fail early to learn what might work and might not. A Japanese proverb notes that, ‘None of us are as smart as all of us.’ A multi-billion dollar technology company had grown successful with seven different product lines operating in different divisions yet working with common infrastructures. An architecture council of 21 architects met face to face every other week to resolve and review all new designs or changes to the underlying software infrastructures. But one nitty gritty issue could not be resolved and it had remained open for several months creating a bottleneck in development. Each council attendee had their own ideas as to impacts and they were not budging. Using a collaboration process where they brainstormed their ideas in silence and then grouped them together, they found a way forward in two hours. Process and tools can help to foster and grow new ideas as long as they ensure each voice in the collaboration is equally heard.

People are often afraid of collaboration. Warren Bennis states that in collaboration people fear three things: 1) Fear of losing their identity, 2) Fear of losing their intellectual mastery, and 3) Fear of losing their individualism. As each person is different, you will have to address these fears on an individual basis. You need to master the art of knowing your people in ways that actually matter to them and that unlock their greatness. What makes a difference in their lives? What have been the major turning points in their work? What book did they read that had a huge impact? These are keys to the person to help you address their possible fears to collaborate.

Besides Bennis’s three fears, people are afraid they will be judged if they express their thoughts. The environment must be open, listening and non-judgmental. A classical guitar player worked at the Gore Company when they invented Gore-Tex and he hated the way his strings would squeak when his hands would sweat. He thought maybe Gore-Tex might help so he approached the outdoor clothing company and they listened. It wasn’t in their wheelhouse but they started a new company, Elixir Strings, with great success.

An environment that fosters ideas may spark new ideas not in line with your company’s vision but a collaborative organization hears them and gives them merit when they have potential. People in your company need to know they will be heard. Create a safe place for them to present their ideas and make a case for development.

There is some conversation about incentivizing innovation. The real question is, what would that look like? Monetizing it would be possible if the monetization is equal, that all ideas receive the reward, not just those that turn into money makers for the company. Don’t worry about this. People are incentivized when they are faced with a challenging problem that needs to be solved. Google doesn’t monetize any of the ideas in their company and people are given the freedom to solve problems they find interesting. Put people in an open area (no cubicles) and give them time to explore. Suddenly you will see the discussions intensify, the walls fill with ideas, and the midnight oil burning.

  1. Arrange Feedback With Integrity

While we can learn from our failures, ideas need encouragement to come to fruition. Feedback is essential to crafting a solid solution to a problem from both inside the company and for customers. This feedback loop has to contain the truth, directly from the source to avoid lost or altered information. Too many times people think they “know” what customers want. Customers need to be asked and their feedback treated with value.

However, sometimes feedback can go sideways. For example, when was the last time someone said to you, “I’d like to give you some constructive criticism” and you knew it was going to be good news? There is no such thing as ‘constructive criticism.’ In an innovative culture, feedback is essential but it must be given to inspire creative thinking not crush or halt it. One executive meets her active programs’ key players once a week, on Tuesday, to present their project issues for a half hour. Because of the globally distributed nature of this division, this starts at 7am and goes until 7 at night. People refer to this as ‘Sarah’s Barbeque’ for obvious reasons. However, the attendees always leave inspired to go forward because the environment is open and the feedback provides hope and confidence in the attendee’s abilities. Sarah listens and asks questions that respect the risk taking and the effort taken to innovate and providing solutions that move the program forward.


Create an entrepreneurial culture inside your company to look to customers for problems to solve. Create a safe place for them to fail, help them to collaborate through processes, tools and open spaces to work, and listen to all ideas with respect, no matter how far-fetched it might be. Then stand back and let them work.

The scientist and innovator, Fernando Fischmann, founder of Crystal Lagoons, recommends this article.



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