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Inspiring Your Work Team to Be Like a Start-Up

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Many of the most successful companies on the planet are start-ups that didn't even exist a few years ago, or sometimes just a few months ago. How do they get so successful? Partly through inspiration or a killer idea -- but also because successful start-ups function differently than traditional companies.

Good start-ups often share common traits -- a flat management structure, wide sharing of the business' risks and potential rewards and a 21st century view of what a workplace should be like, and indeed, what it means to work. Fortunately, these are all qualities that don't have to be unique to start-ups and can be embraced by larger, established firms that know how to use them.

Early versions of start-up behaviour were deployed as long ago as the 1970s by Japanese and European car makers as they scaled the barriers to the North American market and began selling millions of vehicles in Canada and the United States. These manufacturers achieved high levels of quality by empowering their workers; instead of relegating everyone to mindless assembly lines, they created work circles where groups were responsible for ensuring quality and developing new ideas.

They were on to something, and today's generation of start-ups is taking it to the next level. Here are some of the characteristics of successful start-ups that can be translated to any size or type of business:
  • Transparency -- A company where everyone knows what everyone is doing (at work) and has a reasonable idea of how everyone is paid is one where people will be more motivated to work as a team. Transparency encourages open discussion, and this encourages people to bring their new ideas to work instead of keeping them to themselves or taking them elsewhere.
  • Vision -- We work to earn a living, but people at successful start-ups want more than that. This is because they understand where the company wants to go with its ideas. A successful company, established or start-up, has a vision that all its workers can understand and support. A vision is the big picture -- for example, Facebook's vision is for people to use the social media tool "to stay connected with friends and family, to discover what's going on in the world, and to share and express what matters to them."
  • Mission -- Your company's mission is what you want to do with your vision. Google's mission is "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful," which seems to be successful as I used Google to find this out. No matter what size your company or team, you can encourage them to think outside the box while staying within the mission. Ideas can be "out there" if they help the team and the company reach its goals.
  • Environment -- Your team may be housed in a shed or a bleak industrial park, but to get that start-up feeling it should be a fun place to be. Fun can inspire creativity; people need the zen of walking away from a work problem to bring the solution closer. Another good way to inspire teamwork is to make it easy for team members to get together outside work hours. This can be through organized, work-related activities offsite or a simple once-a-week social session right in the office.
  • Flat Structure -- A large company might have a Third Assistant Deputy Junior Vice President in Charge of Procurement and Supplies. A start-up more likely has a Team Member who makes sure the team has adequate supplies for its work, and also has the opportunity to contribute ideas. In companies large or small, people need to perform particular assignments and achieve particular goals, but the lines of communication between the leader and the team members should be direct, with few or no barriers.
  • Diversity -- This means not only gender and cultural diversity -- which should be no-brainers by now -- but also diversity in terms of peoples' outside interests and backgrounds. In some of the most innovative start-ups, hard science and analytics combine with poetry and creativity, to add great design to great ideas. It's legendary how the late Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, dropped out of university to study calligraphy. It's also true that this is how he came up with the idea computers could produce elegant typefaces and beautiful graphics.
  • Opportunity -- People should be recognized and rewarded for their good ideas. This should be built into the compensation structure, and team members should be encouraged to think, "what if?"

A good start-up team should remember how George Bernard Shaw (and Robert F. Kennedy, who loved these words) thought: Some people "look at the world and say, 'Why?' I dream of things that never were and say, 'Why not?'"