As any business ages and grows, it will change. You don’t always do things the same way you did as a startup. The quest for innovation and new approaches to problems often gradually give way to a focus on incremental improvements and doing what you’ve always done, just a little bit better. This problem is part of what is widely known as The Innovator’s Dilemma, after the title of the book by Harvard professor Clayton Christensen.

That innovative spirit, that focus on finding novel solutions to big problems, is a big part of any business’s beginnings. So why do many companies lose it? One of the problems is that as they grow bigger, their people are focused more on the existing business, on their specific tasks, on smaller everyday problems. The daring to take on big challenges and try new things falls by the wayside—why risk the existing business on a moonshot?

But to have a sustainable business, one that will weather new challengers, new technologies, and new times, you have to retain that entrepreneurial spirit. You have to reinvent yourself for each new day. The business that does that has the best chance of continuing to solve problems for people, of offering real value to customers both today and in the future. It’s not easy, but it can be done.

Here are three things to keep in mind that will help you preserve an entrepreneurial spirit in any company:

  • Don’t fear failure. Innovation requires risk—and risk means there is a chance of failure. Not every idea works, and especially on the first attempt. But when people try to avoid the negative consequences of failure, they also lose out on the chance of success. You can’t have one without the other. Of course, that’s not permission to throw caution to the wind and chase after every silver bullet with reckless abandon. You have to be smart, and on the lookout for your best opportunities. Vet your ideas with others, and work on refining them. But don’t be afraid to take the plunge just because there’s risk involved. Take smart risks that have the best chance of success.
  • Encourage flexibility. Look for people who are willing and able to handle a wide range of responsibilities. When you’re a new business, you need people who are flexible and can handle multiple roles. Those same people will be valuable in keeping an entrepreneurial spirit alive as you grow, especially when many people you add are more specialists in particular areas. More adaptable workers help you take on new challenges and see things in different ways, helping you to get “unstuck” when you need it.
  • Build through small teams. It’s easy to keep adding more and more people into a conversation, until the group is so large that nothing can get done. Everyone has their own interests, their own vision, and the only way to keep the group together is on small, inconsequential thing. You’ll find that the best, most innovative thinking comes from small groups of people. Lily Kanter of Serena & Lily, formerly of Microsoft, says she likes to limit her groups to four people for big, innovative projects. Small groups working from the bottom up will be more creative, while a big group only stays focused when order comes from above—defeating the whole purpose of setting up a group to work on innovation!

 

Don’t lose your entrepreneurial spirit—no matter how long you’re in business. It’s what got you where you are in the first place, and it will help you every day as you live in this ever-changing, non-stop world.
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Matt Tarkenton
Prior to joining the Tarkenton Companies in 2004, Matt worked in investment banking and wealth management for companies including Wilmington Trust, JPMorgan, The Robinson-Humphrey Company and Alex Brown & Sons. In 2009, Matt was part of a group that started Renova Partners, a boutique investment bank based in Atlanta. Matt graduated from Princeton University, where he was a member of the 1989 Ivy League Championship Football Team, and received an MBA from Harvard Business School. Matt is very involved in the community, currently serving on the Board of Directors of Youth Villages, on the Education Committee of the National Association of Fixed Annuities (NAFA) and in leadership positions in various organizations.

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