How can big corporations act like lean startups?


Working for big corporations on a project basis, we are often faced with the inertia of large organizations - particularly in the early experimental stage of a design process. Hence, we are always interested in learning from others on how they try to overcome the internal barriers to innovation. 

Last weekend, we got another dose of interesting insights into how big corporations can apply Lean Startup principles. SI Labs attended the 3rd edition of the Leancamp Germany which took place in the KPMG building in the center of Stuttgart. The overall goal of the event was the knowledge exchange between corporates and startups which practice approaches like Lean Startup, Business Modelling, Lean Marketing or Customer Development. The very well organized event was full of inspiring talks, workshops and Q&A sessions – and many of them about Lean Startup in large organizations.

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Representatives from several German enterprises shared their experiences in different group discussions and it turned out that basically all of them are facing similar challenges. Slow decision-making, conflicting departmental goals and risk-averse cultures are (amongst others) reasons why it is so difficult to "act Lean" in a well established company. 

Alright, so what are the requirements to apply Lean Startup in corporate environments ? Here are a few takeaways we would like to share with you:

  • Maximize autonomy!
    Innovation teams in big corporates should operate as an autonomous entity with different processes and a different structure than the rest of the organization. Those internal innovation labs can operate outside of the corporate bureaucracy as well as legal and IT guidelines. The minimal dependencies enable the team to act more like a startup, taking risks and moving fast.  

  • Ensure top level support!
    The leadership should come from the top – at the very least in the form of active top management sponsorship but better through active personal involvement. Experiences have shown, that a lot of innovation projects fail because they are positioned in the lower or mid-level management. Slow approval processes and too many decision makers prevent the team from operating like a startup. Therefore, successful projects need high-level commitment of someone who is strongly committed to innovation. 

  • Lower cost of experiments!
    Many traditional organizations build their beta products and prototypes in a way suitable for production environment which makes iterations and experimentation very expensive. In order to escape corporate regulations and the pressure of a successful brand, it can help to run the experiments under a name other than the existing corporation. This allows to test assumptions and business hypotheses also with products which don't have to comply with the quality standards of the core brand. Furthermore, it's important to lower the cost of experiments in general so that they can be incorporated into reasonable timeline and budget. This is where Lean Startup principles come in. The build-measure-learn method helps us build minimal viable products in very short increments, go to market often and get rapid feedback.

  • Promote your project!
    Once your project is showing the first signs of success, ensure to spread the word to get internal attention. Corporate newsletters, intranet posts, presentations at internal innovation days ... there are lot of ways to promote your project within your company. This point also refers to the aspect of management buy-in. In case the top level management is not aware of your project yet, this is a good chance to get them on board.

If you had other experiences to establish Lean Startup in big corporations you are more than welcome to leave a comment and share them with us!


Writer: Matthias Beikert, Image: Benjamin Schulz