Why we must return to the original startup culture mindset
Business Management

Why we must return to the original startup culture mindset

This is a contributed article by Lanny Cohen, Chief Innovation Officer at Capgemini

A startup's culture was once synonymous with innovation and disruption. It defined forward-thinking companies that used creative problem solving, open communication and a flat hierarchy to radically change industries, from retail to banking. More recently, however, the concept has started to fall into gimmick territory. The focus has shifted from innovation to quirky working styles, but beanbags and free lunches don't change industries, innovation does. That's why we need to return to the original startup culture.

Innovation is of utmost importance to organisational success today, no matter the size of company; with innovation comes new ideas, new perspectives and improved efficiency. By taking the term ‘startup culture' back to its Silicon Valley beginnings, we can pinpoint three core principles for successful innovation that organisations need to act upon. 

Collaboration ecosystem platforms

Innovation requires multiple skill sets, from project management and process modelling to disruptive technology and user experience design. An organisation can seldom manage all these skills if it operates in departmental silos or if it doesn't engage with external parties. To succeed, organisations must do more to engage with their wider partner and vendor community. They must also bolster internal collaboration, where teams draw on each other's skills to drive strategic projects. Many digital transformations fail to deliver expected value because they do not bring all involved parties and capabilities together in a clear and structured project approach. Whether the collaboration is with internal or external parties, or both, cultural and behaviour paradigms often need to change to enable this collaboration.

An example of successful collaboration platform can be seen at Renault. The company recently launched an Innovation Center to allow Renault's internal teams to work with startups and external partners to explore the future of mobility. It plans to give its partners access to its hardware and software systems to facilitate cooperative work on the vehicles of the future, developing breakthrough and futuristic technologies, and fostering a wealth of new business opportunities in the process.

Similarly, Capgemini's Applied Innovation Exchanges (AIEs) are designed to harness the disruptive ideas of a global eco-system and the collective power of a global network of startups, academic institutions, research organisations, venture capital and private equity firms. Through the AIEs, Capgemini is able to integrate its own experts into this ecosystem of innovators and act as a bridge between them and enterprise companies.

Ultimately, organisations cannot innovate in siloed departments or even just collaboratively within their own companies; they must actively collaborate across the entire innovation ecosystem platform, including functions, suppliers, and partners.

Empowerment through applied innovation

Some organisations do not have a culture where employees are empowered to experiment, test and learn, and deploy their ideas at pace. Organisations must realise that hierarchical, bureaucratic, and linear work structures are flattening, and recognise the benefits of more flexible, collaborative and self-managed environments akin to a startup culture. This cultural maturity is the most difficult to attain as it requires a fundamental change in mindset at all levels of the organisation.

It is important to have an open culture where professionals feel safe to experiment and explore. However, measurement, metrics and focus on applying the innovation around a clear business outcome are also critical aspects to keep everyone focused on objectives and provide a common language to communicate across the organisation.

Digital-first

Today, a startup culture is synonymous with organisations that value digital and prioritise digital solutions. Success in the digital future will depend on an enterprise's ability to implement a new cultural understanding that uses digital technology innovatively. To create a digital culture, organisations will need to have the right blend of top-down and bottom-up approaches that engage, empower, and inspire employees to build the culture change together.

In line with this, organisations will need to implement KPIs to measure behaviours to align with outcomes, deploy change agents to cross-pollinate desired behaviours, and invest in digital skills training and collaboration tools for employees. Organisations that invest in people and align the values and mission of the company to employees, set the stage for working with purpose. Ultimately, this creates an ecosystem that promotes learning, experimenting and growth. As such, employees rally together to achieve something greater than just individual execution. If they plan early, and execute with clarity and purpose, organisations can leverage their digital culture identity as an innovative differentiator that brings significant competitive advantage.

Although the definition of startup culture has shifted in recent years, there is still a lot that organisations of all sizes can learn from its original meaning. It is important to remember that a strong culture promotes trust, motivates employees and empowers the organisation to scale. Key to this is embedding a startup culture's principles of encouraging collaboration, applying innovation and enabling a digital-first culture.


Lanny Cohen is Chief Innovation Officer for Capgemini. Cohen is responsible for Capgemini's global applied innovation strategy, as well as its worldwide network of 16 applied innovation centers. Under Cohen's direction, Capgemini's start up ecosystem is recognised as best-in-class by several industry analysts. During his 35 year plus career at Capgemini and Ernst & Young combined, Cohen has held positions along the entire spectrum of business management, account management, business development, and delivery management from consultant to partner/vice president.

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