Since Larry Page became Google’s CEO again in April, his focus has been on “making a company of more than 24,000 employees act like a startup“. And because of my interest in mapping out organizational space and understanding the different ways in which people can organize themselves, I’ve been trying to figure out what, exactly, differentiates a startup culture from a big company culture.
My current theory is that the difference is in incentive alignment. At a startup, it is difficult to be individually successful while doing the wrong thing for the company, because if the company fails, everybody is out of a job. At a big company, though, fiefdoms can develop, where within a fief, people can get promoted for improving the position of that group despite being obstructionist to the rest of the company. This is often what people disdainfully refer to as corporate politics.
This reminds me of Mancur Olson’s book Power and Prosperity, where he describes how it makes economic sense for special interest groups to subvert democracy in harmful ways – if they represent 1% of the population and push for an action that will benefit them while hurting the overall democracy, they reap 100% of the benefit but only feel 1% of the pain. A similar dynamic is at work for groups within big companies, where they push for their own agenda even when it might hurt the overall company’s position.
This difference in incentives drives many of the differences in behaviors between startups and big companies. At a startup, nobody says “That’s not my job” when asked to do something that’s critical to the company’s success, because they won’t have a job if the company isn’t successful. At a startup, people have an understanding of what drives the company’s success and re-prioritize on the fly if necessary if market conditions are changing. Everybody is invested both economically and personally in the startup’s success, and that drives a unity of purpose that overrides individual agendas.
At a big company, people want to avoid risks and perpetuate the status quo, because creeping up the corporate ladder is the safer path. It’s easier to say no than yes, leading to the big-company phenomenon where every new project has to be signed off on by 10 different departments (legal, finance, security, PR, marketing, sales, engineering, etc), creating 10 opportunities for “No” without having a single person that can say “Yes” and have it stick. It’s possible to get promoted and get paid more without doing anything to benefit the company, if you are advancing your group’s agenda and hitting your individual targets even if the targets are no longer meaningful.
So what does it mean to have a big company with a startup culture? Part of it is figuring out how to get everybody at the company aligned on what the priorities of the company are (this is incredibly difficult at a sprawling company like Google), and rewarding them appropriately. Part of it is to encourage appropriate risk-taking – rewarding those who said “Yes” when it was the right thing to do even if the project failed. Part of it is creating a more risky environment in general – the people who are attracted to safe big companies with a well-defined ladder are not the people that will function well in a startup culture where things are changing fast. And I’m sure there is lots more that I haven’t figured out yet.
I’m fascinated to be part of Larry Page’s Google experiment on creating a big company with a startup culture. I’m not sure it’s possible without addressing the questions of incentive alignment and risk I raise here, but I want for it to be possible. The scale of projects that can be done at a big company are mind-boggling, but I also miss the free-wheeling all-for-one-and-one-for-all culture at the startups I’ve been at in the past. I will be watching closely and looking for opportunities to help with this culture shift as somebody who has startup experience and is interested in these sorts of culture questions.