Companies need greater entrepreneurial spirit

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A plea for a stronger start-up culture

TextUlrich Küsthardt, CIO Evonik Industries AG

Major corporations are not typically considered the ideal environment for the growth of creative ideas, for trying out new things and being allowed to fail. Why not? Small and large companies need to remain dynamic if they are to be successful over the long term. This means that a balance must be struck: Between structures, processes, and rules on the one hand, and appropriate levels of freedom for independent thinkers who are determined to do their own thing. We need innovators and entrepreneurs who turn ideas into success, and an environment that encourages and promotes them. Where ideas are recognized and promoted, where mistakes on the road to success are not stigmatized but are considered an integral part of the process. The trial-and-error method is not exclusive to the sciences – the initiators of major innovations are familiar with it too. Just ask Nobel Prize winner Roald Hoffmann, for example.

Why have people with an entrepreneurial spirit recently become more and more popular? Because real innovations are increasingly emerging from small start-up companies? In my job, I have a lot of contact with start-ups. Our investments in new companies are not restricted to our venture capital unit. We cooperate with many agile business newcomers. What is so special or different about the people who have a strong entrepreneurial spirit? I am always fascinated by their curiosity, their enthusiasm, their staying power, and their infectious optimism. As well as that: They are ruthlessly efficient when dealing with limited resources. But they have another quality too: They are prepared to ditch an idea that is not working. Backing the wrong horse even after it has become clear that it is destined to lose, you can quickly lose millions. The larger corporations can learn a thing or two from these people – especially when it comes to speed, error culture, and management of consequences.

Evonik is working on identifying the entrepreneurial employees within the company, promoting them and giving them the opportunity to develop. We need people like this in our teams. Diversity promotes creativity and, ultimately, it leads to better results. One of the ways we do this is our annual ideas competition, where we present the “Entrepreneurship Award”. In this competition, we provide coaches and we organize a boot camp to help the six best teams prepare for the final. During the camp, the teams work on refining their ideas, and they also learn how to “sell” their idea to other decision makers within the company. In the idea pitching stage, which will be familiar to viewers of “Höhle der Löwen” (the German version of “Dragons’ Den”), the core of the business idea is presented within a few minutes. This can take the form of an elevator pitch or – as is the case in our Entrepreneurship Finale – it can be before an audience of 200 Evonik colleagues. The creators of the ideas have ten minutes to win over the audience. A representative of the winning team is then given the opportunity to work on further development of the idea for a full year, and to prove its viability in the market. The next task is to find an operational division in the company that is prepared to bring the developed prototype to market and to provide further financing – or otherwise, the plan is shelved. For all these corporate entrepreneurs – sometimes referred to as intrapreneurs – this is high-speed development of their personalities, no matter what stage of the competition they reach or what level of success they achieve. It’s a learning process for all of them.

And for us too. The lesson for us is that we have a wealth of very creative and high-potential people in the company. People who think beyond their job description – in some cases way beyond – and thus pave the way for development of new processes and products. But these people need a suitable environment if they are to thrive. This requires a cultural transformation on an even greater scale. The Entrepreneurship competition and the realization of the ideas is one contribution. But the cultural transformation needs a range of such elements. Taking responsibility for mistakes, learning from them, and sharing experiences: That’s where the start-ups and founders have an advantage. And it’s precisely for this reason, I will repeat again and again, that we are developing other formats to make our innovation culture more and more visible. Our goal is to make our company a breeding ground for new ideas. So, let’s make it happen!

Illustration: Romina Birzer


27TH August 2019

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