Something that is common with the start-ups I’ve been involved with, and stories of entrepreneurialism you can read is the passion of those involved. They have a drive and desire to succeed, backed by enthusiasm and belief for the product they are building. More often than not, they are personally invested in the project; maybe it is a problem that they feel needs addressing (Dyson), or an opportunity in an industry they are familiar with. It almost always it goes beyond just a job, it is a hunger to bring change and make a difference. They have a vision, it what drives them, yet they are willing adapt the original vision and move with agility as circumstances dictate.
FlickR started its life as a tool in a role playing game. The game was not successful and ultimately shelved (fail fast) with the photo sharing capability being developed; the team realised where the value was rather than sticking to a failed big up front plan. If you go back in time to 1999 and look at how google described itself:
Google Inc. was founded in 1998 by Sergey Brin and Larry Page to make it easier to find high-quality information on the web.
Nothing there about browsers or phone operating systems or word processors or spreadsheets. Twelve years to go from a search engine to the Google we know today. Place that lens over most enterprises and how have they managed to adapt to the changing world? I know of several enterprise projects that are three plus years in, (that’s a quarter of Google’s life) and have still yet to start delivering value. You don’t get that with start-ups, or places where vision, passion and personal investment drive the product strategy (thinking Apple and Steve Jobs for example).
I’ll lay the fault at Enterprise Culture. Silo thinking and career progression through the ranks. So an individual is personally invested in delivering documentation that specifies the system. When she delivers these she is done. What happens next is someone else’s problem. Reward is rarely for delivering the overall vision, why should it? How often do all stakeholders involved in a project have a strong grasp of the what’s and why’s of what they are doing? They are only rewarded on the how they deliver the fragment that they are responsible for.
When IT becomes a supplier rather than a partner, no-one has ultimate responsibility for delivering a coherent holistic vision, it becomes a contractual relationship rather than a passionate obsession. Funding projects is all to often a charade and a nonsense. The business submit their funding requests (a line item for a potential project) for the forthcoming financial year in the autumn / winter. Budgets are finalised in the Spring with the new financial year and months have elapsed due to internal budgetting and accounting formalities rather than the ability to respond to the market. Contrast that with the start up model with seed funding to get started and if the projects shows viability second round funding follows. If the project is not viable it is suffocated before wasting cash. (There are interesting perspectives on this leaner model at Beyond Budgetting).
I wonder if in these lean times we are going to start seeing lean thinking applied to enterprises and a start-up culture being nurtured. There is certainly a growing interest in agile, beyond the practitioners and from C level executives. But agility in software development is only the first step. To be really successful it needs to spread through the whole organisation, not just paying lip-service to the word “agile”, but devolving responsibility to individuals and collaborative, cross-organisation teams who can share the vision, passion and are personally invested in getting the right quality products to market at speed.