When Big Companies Should Act Like Small Companies

Yeah, I’m one of those guys.

I’m the guy that reads a book and can’t stop thinking about it. OK and sometimes I can’t stop talking about it either. Yeah, I’m that guy.

Here’s the book:

Yeah, that’s a book from 1991. But still relevant, even with the hard drive company examples!

So why have I been thinking about this? I’ve been thinking about what I’ve been doing at work lately. I still like it. I still enjoy the industry I’m in and–most importantly–the people I’m working with. And I’m still learning, so that’s another plus.

But I’ve been thinking about my specific job function. I’m an analog electrical engineer most of the time. I dabble with the digital here and there (though today I realized how little coding I’ve done lately).  I do a few other small functions too (such as recruiting and long term investigations of technology). But it’s really the variety that gets me most excited about work in the morning. That’s why I became an engineer, to work on a lot of different things! Never did I realize that would mean across functional groups as well.

OK, we’re almost there. What does this have to do with small companies? Well, what I just described is the start-up mentality. A few people doing the work of many. Yes, it’s very messy and disorganized. And it means lots more hours because you might have to figure out how to do payroll, before you go off and do it (ha, and that’s assuming you’re all getting paid in the first place). But my mind wandered back to the fact that this is how small companies win. No, not just the future. They win in the competitive marketplace. And it’s envious. So why not try acting a little smaller, big companies?! Here’s how:

  1. Self-assembling teams
    • This is most directly related to what I enjoy, the “mixing it up” on the job. If you free your employees to be self-organizing, they will often surprise you. The example pointed to time and time again is Google, with their “20% time”. The employees self assemble into teams, work on projects they enjoy and crank out some really impressive products. And that keeps Google on top. Allow your people not just the time to work on “Skunk Works” type projects…also give them the freedom to figure out what configurations of a team work best. People are smart, especially when they’re challenged.
  2. Fund the lowest level
    • You know what happens at a startup when the VP needs to get approval to buy something from the CEO? He turns around in his chair, taps him on the CEO on the back and asks for the company credit card. Within a minute, a purchasing decision is made. Now consider large corporation X. The chain of buying decisions has to work through 4 people before the product is even considered to be bought and then it has to be shipped. Quickly getting things you need to quickly turn a design is a boon for the smaller companies; pushing these decisions down into the hands of those designing products make for much faster decisions.
  3. Try unconventional markets
    • The Innovator’s Dilemma points out how some of the example companies use their small size and lack of markets (when compared to their Goliath competition) to out maneuver. So if your competition owns 80% of the market in doodadirizers and you own 3% (with other smaller competitors owning pieces of the other 17% of the market), you might decide to go try and sell your doodadirizer to someone new. You might try and find someone who always buys a wungschlobler but would be willing to try your doodadirizer in their application. A new market opportunity opens up and you grow into it, eventually dominating the space. Later you come back and crush the former Goliath.  Doing this in a large company would require you to step outside your comfortable selling zone and chase opportunities that wouldn’t necessarily pay off in the short term.
  4. Keep it in house
    • Sometimes in the push to satisfy all customers at a larger company, you’ll get 1000 inputs for 1 output product. At a startup of 2 people, you have 2 inputs for 1 output. It’s more of  “design and see if anyone likes it” rather than “design so everyone likes it”. Having a small group of designers with a specific goal in mind can help drive some of the best product ideas. Sure, your customers know what they want (and they will let you know with their wallet). But if your designers have knowledge of the industry they’re designing into (and why wouldn’t they?), then they should also be able to design features that no one has thought of yet.

Of course there are a lot of ways that big companies far outstrip smaller companies in the marketplace: more capital, stability in the workplace, larger reach to customers and so on and so forth. But small companies, regardless of how difficult they are to run, will run circles around ill-prepared firms.

This post strayed into the business side more than I would have liked on EngineerBlogs.org, but it’s a reality we all have to deal with at some point or another. Even the most secluded engineers will be directly affected by business decisions made with or without an engineer’s input. My suggestion is that you push your managers and higher ups to treat your work more like a startup (or rather many different startups who happen to be located under the same roof and name). It will give engineers greater control over product decisions, turn out faster products and help win your next contracts. What do you think? Let us know in the comments.


2 responses to “When Big Companies Should Act Like Small Companies”

  1. Jason Struble (Strube09)

    Can’t agree more… I constantly get caught up in company politics when I could just get some work and designs done if given the freedom. Corporate red tape holds me back all the time and has pushed me into considering my own firm in my niche market.

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