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“The biggest challenge we have is that we can’t be seen to fail” said the director of innovation for one of the biggest companies in the UK as we sat sipping flavoursome coffee, outside some of the swankiest offices I have ever seen in my life.  

I had spent an hour understanding his company’s goals (to create an innovative, entrepreneurial culture) and what was stopping them (A HUGE list!). 

Finally I asked the director of innovation, “How about we do ….. to change it?”  He looked me straight in the eye and without a hint of irony said, “This is not something we can change!”

I left that meeting feeling shocked, confused, and with a question burning within me: “How do you create a vibrant, positive entrepreneurial culture in your business, and what stops people from doing this?”

Do you really want an entrepreneurial culture?

Many of the top companies in the UK claim they want to develop an entrepreneurial culture to help their business succeed but most of them never take action.  So many of the businesses I have worked with over the years say they want to innovate, say they want to try new things and grow, but when it actually comes to it they choose the safe option every time.  Why is this?

Why are you so scared of innovation and change?  Why are corporate organisations in general strangling entrepreneurialism? 

As we think about entrepreneurial culture, I would love you to please broaden your thinking to different groups as well, families, couples, church groups, clubs, small companies, networking groups and more. Every one of these groups has formed a culture over the time they are together, and this thinking applies to them as well.   As you read on think about how this might apply to your friend group or family as much as it does to business.

Let’s have a look at the downside of an entrepreneurial culture.

  1. Failure. You have to be willing to fail.  Not every idea you will try is going to work and if you aren’t willing to fail you will never succeed.  One of the biggest blockers to innovation and creativity in large corporate organisations is the fear of reputational damage from failure.  What if we look bad in the marketplace?  There are people who’s entire job is to protect the companies brand/image and they work to stop anything happening that might seem like a failure and cast a bad light on the company. 
  2. Uncomfortable. Entrepreneurs by definition create change and change is uncomfortable for most people.  Recently I was with a client of ours and she said that I had a reputation within their organisation as “challenging”.  She said it in a way that made it sound like a bad thing! Most people don’t want change or to be challenged. It is uncomfortable.  Looking at what you are currently doing and openly analysing it is going to make most people uncomfortable and they fear this. 
  3. Risky. Because success is not guaranteed and it is uncomfortable challenging people this makes the process of innovation and entrepreneurship inherently risky.  Even if you aren’t risking money you might be risking reputation or relationships to make change. These risks put most people off ever trying.  Fear of losing what you already have is far stronger in most organisations than the draw to innovate or create change.   One of the largest risks that people face in a business is the loss of their job.  I believe this single risk in most organisations is the biggest killer of innovation and entrepreneurialism as people will hide and do anything to protect their employment.
    One housing association employee that hired us told me that if our event hadn’t been a success, she would have lost her job! How does that promote risk taking or trying new and innovative things?
  4. Admitting it isn’t working.  For change to work you first have to look at what you are currently doing and admit where it isn’t working.  This can be very difficult if your team are the ones that created the current way of working, product or service.  I know it is difficult for me to look at what is going on at Rebel Business School and pull it to pieces because I created most of it and it is my failings we are discussing.  For most corporate organisations where status and image are so critical to the next promotion or pay rise, admitting what is wrong is not in your best interest.  The first step to change is admitting what is wrong. This is too painful for most people to ever do.  Would you risk your next promotion and pay rise by admitting you haven’t been performing as well as you could have been?

The benefits of an entrepreneurial culture

Think of all the organisations that have failed because they didn’t innovate or change.

Blockbuster had the number 1 position in the movie rental market, they had all the resources and position but didn’t change.  They were offered a chance to partner with Netflix but turned it down because they thought it was a niche offering!  They are now bankrupt and Netflix is worth $28 billion.

Kodak invented the first ever digital camera and the inventor was told, “That’s cute – but don’t tell anyone about it” because of the fear it would affect sales of traditional film!  Is that an entrepreneurial culture?

Xerox, Nokia, Toshiba and so many more companies have failed because they didn’t move with the market, innovate or be entrepreneurial.

If an entrepreneur had been at Kodak he would have taken that digital camera and started selling it on the side, challenged the leadership’s decisions or made it work another way.   It takes a special type of person to be an entrepreneur in a culture that is the opposite.

The number 1 reason for being an entrepreneur is that you stand a chance of developing, changing, moving with the times, and not being killed by change.  Change is inevitable and it is how you respond to it that is important.

Being entrepreneurial does not guarantee success, but it at least gives you a chance to bring something to the market and the opportunity to make a profit.

What are the benefits of an entrepreneurial culture?  There are so many, and they are so varied.  Here are a few I have noticed:

  1. Innovation – your team, people, family will start coming up with ideas on how to make life and the business better.  They won’t all be good but there will be ideas flowing
  2. Sales – new products, ideas and services gives you a chance to increase sales and build better relationships with your customers
  3. Staff retention – if a team member truly believes they are helping to make the company better and their ideas are listened to then your staff retention goes up
  4. Fun – challenging the norm, coming up with ideas and making things better can be fun.  One of the highlights of life at Rebel is our annual company retreat in Poland and working together to improve our business.  This stuff should be fun!
  5. Money – all these things if done well could lead to increased business, new customers and money!

How do you go about developing an entrepreneurial culture?

The big question then becomes, “How do you develop and entrepreneurial culture?” 

My business partner Simon and I have worked for so many organisations that are the opposite of this that we have a pretty solid idea of what not to do!  The starting point of our Company culture at Rebel has been looking at other organisations and thinking how can we do the opposite?  

  1. Believe you can – in the first example of this article the director of innovation says, “This is not something we can change”.  If you don’t believe you can create an entrepreneurial culture or change things, then you have already lost the battle before you have started!  The first step to change is seeing clearly what needs to change.  The second step to change it believing that you can change it.  
  2. Give people power – Your family, your group or your team need to feel as though they have the power to create change. How do you achieve this? Give them a budget to spend and let them do it without oversight.  Tell them that you want them to try and improve things and ask them to report back on what they try.  You need to free them to take action and test things!
  3. Celebrate failure – Celebrate when someone tries something and it doesn’t work; because if you celebrate failiure they are more likely to try new things!  Not every idea you come up with is going to work perfectly the first time and that has to be OK.  One of the best ways to get people to try new things is to celebrate when they don’t work.   Your team needs to know that you have their back if it goes wrong!  This is the opposite of the employee being told that they will be fired for trying something new. 
  4. Give freedom – let them choose how to approach a task.  Tell them the goal and let them work towards it.  Most companies spend their time training people on the process.  The opposite of this is to train people on the goal, show them the process you currently operate and allow them to make changes if they think it will improve things.  Tell people about the outcome you are trying to achieve before you tell them how they are meant to do it.   Start with the goal and give freedom
  5. Start with you.  You have to show that you are not infallible and that you are willing to fail, willing to look bad, willing to take risks. If you aren’t willing to fail and take risks how is anyone around you going to be inspired to do so?  You HAVE to lead by example in this instance.   How do I practically do this?  When I am at Rebel I like to be the first to give ideas that are a little bit crazy and out there and this seems to free people to contribute more. I tell people where I have gone wrong in meetings, I tell the team about my mistakes and the experiments I run.  I start with my flaws. 
  6. Teach from failure not success.  Most people like to talk about their successes and then ask people to copy them.  At Rebel we like to tell people about our failures and what we have learnt.  By doing this we show that we are human too; we make it ok to make mistakes and we help people understand where our culture has come from.  What we really want is to help people avoid the mistakes we have made and then we can make new mistakes together and learn from them!
  7. Always be improving. If you want your team to openly admit where it isn’t working in the business then you need to go first.  You can create a culture of learning and innovation by going first and admitting your failings and how you want to improve things.  By doing this and going first you are looking to foster a culture where it is ok for people to point out problems and not hide them for fear of retribution.  If you are constantly talking about the issues and how to fix them you will develop a culture of never ending improvement. 
  8. Judgement.  In every business there are the people that quickly judge ideas, actions and thoughts.  This is a KILLER of entrepreneurship and innovation.  We have worked very hard to delay judgement in our business until we have tested an idea out.  We don’t know if it is going to work if we have never tried it before. We try things out and then judge afterwards based on data and facts, not before!  Quick judgement of ideas stops people putting new ones forward.  If you catch people judging something they have never tried, judging something they don’t know anything about then kill that behaviour quickly. If you don’t it will kill your business.   
Building an entrepreneurial culture is as much about removing negative behaviours as it is about introducing positive behaviours.  If you can remove judgement early on, stop people from killing ideas, stop people protecting their status and then build in new behaviours of creativity then you will create an amazing culture. 

The entrepreneurial challenge

To start you going I have designed this challenge for you to do with your family, team, group, or business.   The purpose of the challenge is to help you build some of the entrepreneurial thought patterns and habits that will have a positive effect on every area of your life. 

Find 3 to 10 people to do this with once a week.  It should only take 15 minutes.  If you don’t have any friends or are a solopreneur then it works just as well if you get out pen and paper and work through it on your own.

Answer the following questions:

  • What 1 thing do you want to improve this week?
  • Write a few bullet points aobut how you would like it to improve
  • Generate at least 12 ideas on how you could improve it.  The goal is quantity of ideas not quality!  If you come up with 12 then 1 of them is bound to be good!
  • What do you need to learn to improve this area of life?
  • What are you going to do about it?  What is the simple next action?

This is a simple structure to help train your brain to look for innovation, creative thoughts and learning each week.  If you train your brain and the brains of those around you to positively look for how to improve every week you will have developed one of the most important parts of an entrepreneurial culture. 

For more reading about the entrepreneurial mindset check out

Doing things differently
How do you know it is possible?
Standing up to the rules

As always your comments and thoughts light me up!  Let me know of anything you think I have missed, comments or questions below!

Sending you positive vibes!

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