Can a large organisation be responsive?

Steve Blank, a lean start-up expert has elegantly described the differences between start-ups and traditional large organisations.  

“the 21st century definition of a startup: A startup is a temporary organization designed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model…
The corollary for a large company is: A company is a permanent organization designed to execute a repeatable and scalable business model.”

These definitions are useful and highly accurate. Most large organisations have chosen to focus on efficiency in execution of a business model as the rationale behind their efforts.

However, it is important to note that a corollary may follow but does not always preclude other logical alternatives. Breaking apart Blank’s structure there are a number of different elements in play:

  • the duration of the organisation: temporary vs permanent
  • the process of the organisation: search vs execution of a repeatable and scalable business model
  • an implicit difference between effectiveness of a search and efficiency of execution

Importantly there are other options that could be chosen for these spots in Blank’s definition:

  • Rather than looking at duration we could look at the ability of the organisation to change – adaptability with a scale from the highly adaptable startup to the fixed processes and systems of efficiency oriented large scale organisations.
  • Rather than focusing on process efficiency we could focus on effectiveness of process at achieving purpose – no scalable business models is permanently enduring; they must be subject to eternal change to be more effective and to better achieve the outcomes for which people came together.

From this we can see that there is at least one more logical model to chose. Let’s define a responsive organisation thus:

“a responsive organisation: is an adaptive organisation designed to search for more effective ways to execute a repeatable and scalable business model.” 

Blank is right that you can’t behave like a start-up if you are trying to be efficient in execution and startups should not be judged by efficiency of execution. However there are more than two models for an organisation to choose. Large organisations can be responsive but they need to choose to adapt and be more effective.

Ask obvious questions

Recently I have posted on the benefits of asking different questions for strategy and innovation.  We also need to ask the obvious questions too.

Most of the time we are so busy doing that we skip over the obvious questions.  We need to ask more questions about how we work better and how we interact better.  

Obvious? Yes.  Done? Rarely.

We are at a point where changes in the way we work are surfacing all around us.  To better leverage these new approaches, we need to question assumptions and approaches that we have inherited. We need to relentlessly reflect on improvements in how we work.

That means asking questions that seem to have obvious answers:

  • Why is this important?
  • Who is the customer?
  • What is the problem?
  • Who is doing this task? Who is not?
  • What are we not doing?
  • Who do we engage? How do we engage better?
  • How do we better organise ourselves?
  • What would make the process better?
  • How do we go faster?
  • How do we make decisions better?
  • How do we learn together?
  • What does success look like?

The list of potential obvious questions is long.  Make a habit of quickly reflecting on the key ones together. You will be surprised what changes in approach and new benefits surface when you push against business as usual.

Asking these questions enables people to maximise their human potential in the work ahead.

Your Organisation. Your Movement.

One of the busiest posts on this blog is How to Start a Change Movement. People are increasingly recognising and preparing to adjust to the increasing pace of change in the world.

However, there is a bigger issue that is also surfaces when we reflect on the need for people to collaborate to bring about change:

Our organisations only exist to drive change.

Organisations exist to fulfil a purpose, to make a difference, to better meet a need, to help customers and communities and to make more from less. These are all change.

There is no successful product or service that does not deliver change for the customer. The bigger the changes created for customers and the community the more likely the organisation will succeed.

We can lose the change focus of our organisations in the complexity of our goals, processes, structures, budgets and day-to-day challenges. We can assume that doing our job, doing the same things and surviving to the weekend is the point of the organisation.

Every organisation must be a change movement. We need to use the elements of great change movements to make our organisations more responsive. Without continuously creating some better form of change for its customers and community, an organisation quickly loses its reason to exist.

Next time someone suggests that an organisation doesn’t need to change, ask them to reflect on what it is that the organisation does in the world.


Trust is critical to successful organizations. While it may be an example of our ability to acquiesce in functional stupidity, trust accelerates decision making and reduces transaction costs in teams and organisations. Arguably the boundaries of trust shape the size and structure of our organisations. Without trust there can be no effective engagement of employees, the community or other stakeholders.

A recent insightful analysis on trust in organisations highlights three elements of internal trust in organisations:
– vertical interpersonal trust – trust in direct superiors
– lateral interpersonal trust – trust in peers
– impersonal trust – trust in processes and systems

As we consider changes to the shape of our organisations and their systems to leverage disruption and create more responsive organisations, we must remember to balance the demands of each of these forms of trust. A shift from hierarchical autocratic management may reduce the demand for vertical interpersonal trust, but it will increase the need for the other two forms. Agile team based work can increase lateral interpersonal trust, but will also place demands on impersonal trust through changes required in systems and processes.

Changing the way we work will require us to strike a new balance between these three forms of trust with all the participants in the system. It will have ramifications for trust externally as these three models are reflected in our relations externally as well. Trust can’t be imposed. It must be earned in action, capability and credible intent.

As we adjust our organisation models, we will need to take our whole system into a new balance of trust. Impersonal trust, trust in the systems and processes we use, will be the critical component to that process of engagement and adjustment.