Bottling the entrepreneurial spirit

Hugh
Thompson discovers how the big companies have tried to capture the secret of
entrepreneurial success, with mixed results

Growing
fast, taking decisions quickly, being passionate and translating that enthusiasm
to your staff – these are what successful management is all about. It is also
what characterises successful entrepreneurs and the companies they run. A fact
not lost on major corporates as they compete with newcomers in their markets.

In
recent years, major corporates have tried all kinds of methods to create an
entrepreneurial culture within their management structures. Typically, 3M –
famous for its creation of entrepreneurship – has set up an Enterprise Growth
Team.

After
a year, the team was split into two separate groups. One is now dedicated to
following organic growth opportunities while the other chases new markets in
the UK. In both teams, executives from various disciplines and product areas
come together to try and fast-track new ideas from various parts of the company.

In
recent  years, the company, which has a
turnover of more than £400m a year in the UK alone, has seen its growth slow
and it hopes its new team of shock troops can do something to improve the
situation.

Team
leader Steven Dally says: “The trick has been not to just come up with ideas,
but to develop ideas that we can get to market quickly. We have to have both
individual mavericks and a developed team to get these things going. Without
leadership to bring focus there can be no results.”

The
fact that 3M has already changed its original concept suggests its either
harder than it first thought to simulate entrepreneurship or, like any small
business, it is adapting quickly to its marketplace.

“What
has happened is a positive learning experience,” says Dally.

Two
years ago, BT Retail created four, joint corporate ventures to exploit
opportunities in call centres, web shopping, home computers and small business
software.

Ventures
bosses have been taken out of the parent company, given their own boards and
incentivised by investing their own bonuses as well as being promised a
percentage of any future valuation of their business.

BT
is conscious that it has missed opportunities in the past because it wasn’t
focused enough. This way, the telecom giant argues, executives are totally in
touch with their market and there is no danger of the projects being squeezed
for some greater good.

BT
believes that in this framework executives also behave like entrepreneurs.
Although, given that the small business software side of the venture has
already closed, it would seem that entrepreneurs working under the umbrella of
major corporations can suffer the same fate as their less well-equipped cousins
on the outside.

But
what 3M, BT and others are trying to do is square a circle. That is, small
companies have ideas, leadership and flexibility, but no resources; while big
companies have ideas, poor decision-making processes, a lack of flexibility and
more than their share of resources. The logic of established management
structures does not necessarily allow the cross-fertilisation of ideas or
stimulate original thought processes that is the mark of true entrepreneurs.

Typically,
in a study (sponsored by 3M) of where business leaders had most of their ideas,
most said it was when they were away from work. The moral being, if you want
your executives to be creative, get them out of the office.

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