Botox for your business: six ways big firms stay young

A business can lose its mojo as it grows, says ?What If!'s Matt Kingdon - but there are easy ways to restore its youth.

by Matt Kingdon

As businesses mature, retaining the excitement gets harder and harder: inevitably, the corporate body slows down.

Fortunately most people I meet in large, veteran organisations don’t like wasting time, and if they are lucky they have bosses who want to keep up the business’ ‘youthful mojo’.

But as anyone over a certain age will tell you, staying agile is all about translating desire into action. So here’s are five quick fixes to keep those more mature companies young and spritely:  

1. Find a cause worth fighting for

The early stage of a corporate’s life is a heady affair: it’s exciting to be a successful challenger in a period of fast growth. But as the market matures and the company’s position solidifies, a veteran business needs a cause worth fighting for.

Businesses that fall into the habit of profit-seeking, existing solely to please their shareholders, quickly demotivate customers and employees and end up rudderless.

One ‘youthful veteran’ who has successfully avoided this paradox is Unilever. At a corporate level the CEO is driving a sustainability agenda hard and at a brand level there is a clear sense among colleagues of why they need to win.

Under the battle-cry ‘Dirt is Good’, the Omo/ Persil franchise has reinvented itself as a campaigning force for a child’s right to get messy. Having a cause worth fighting for injects real adrenalin into Unilever’s 100-year-old business.

2. Create a generation of radical thinkers

Most executives in veteran companies are well-versed in the dangers of ‘doing a Kodak’, and some have deliberate strategies aimed at allowing heretic thinking to bubble up and be taken seriously.

This may take the form of separately located innovation teams, early stage investment in leading-edge companies or groups of high-potential colleagues reporting directly to the CEO.

IBM, for example, was the only mainframe computer manufacturer to make it in the mini-computer market. It recognised the markets were fundamentally different and cannibalisation was likely, and so set up a new business unit, in a new location. Free from the constraints and politics of the existing business, it was able to develop a winning business model.

3. Encourage a slap in the face

Ironically, big companies can have too many people and too much money for their own good. As market research functions are established, access to customers becomes a regimented process.

The nimble veterans of this world are swapping the word ‘research’ for ‘insight’ and encouraging all staff to experience what makes their customers tick. At over 300 years old, Barclays Bank is a super-veteran but keeps young by encouraging senior executives to live in their customer’s world.

This means leaving the safety of the desk and meeting families in their homes and inviting customers into team meetings and leadership events. Experiences like this can shatter assumptions built over time in the office and fill even the most long-serving executives with a zeal to ‘do the right thing’ for their customers (although it’s arguable they should be spending less time out of the office, and more time finding a way to plug the £12.8bn gap in its banking sheet the bank uncovered this week).

4. ‘Collaboration’, not ‘teamwork’

There is a critical distinction to be made between teamwork and collaboration, but these words are often used interchangeably. Veteran companies that keep their youthful mojo need to collaborate with contacts outside the company; suppliers, customers and even competitors.

Consider any team sport – winning ultimately comes down to teamwork. But to say that players ‘collaborate’ to win sounds odd. That’s because teamwork has rules and boundaries: the duration of the game, the size of the pitch, the positions of the players and what constitutes a victory. Collaboration, on the other hand, operates in an environment where the boundaries and rules aren’t clear. In fact, the rules unfold as the project progresses. And collaborating parties don't always have a clear idea of what victory looks like; it’s something they feel their way towards.

Too often, teamwork looks like polite people making minimal progress, whereas collaboration is an altogether more robust concept that doesn't tolerate mediocrity. It drives step change.

Lego is a company that’s really embraced collaboration with consumers. It launched an online program in 2005 where consumers could design their own products. There are now over 100,000 active users of the program who have, between them, generated 300,000 creations, which several of their blockbuster products are drawn from.

5. Plastic surgery for the office

Dull, grey offices generate dull, grey thinking.

Barclaycard has taken a leaf out of younger, trendier companies (think Google) and refurbished a floor in Barclays Canary Wharf HQ as a series of spaces to eat together, bump into one another and work together.

British Gas has gone one step further and established its Connected Homes team in trendy Charlotte Street. Here it feels a million miles away from its Staines HQ as developers rub shoulders with senior execs.

Meanwhile W L Gore, the makers of Gortex – founded in 1958 - believes working units need to be no more than 200 people. This radical structure leads to super fast communication and has helped Gore win coveted ‘Best Place To Work’ awards.

6.Stay visible

Youthful mojo in veteran companies starts at the top. Last Christmas, I was in the Oxford Street John Lewis and bumped into CEO Andy Street working the tills.

I’m not qualified to say how good he was at this, but that’s not the point – his good humour and high energy, right at the front line, would be felt not just by colleagues on that floor but eventually by all colleagues everywhere through the most powerful social network – the grapevine.

Most people in large organisations tend to discount what the boss says but really take notice of what they do. Seeing your boss ‘mucking in’, taking an interest in the product and trying new things is, arguably, the greatest way to inject a youthful energy into any organisation.

- Matt Kingdon is the co-founder of innovation consultancy ?What If!

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