Innovation Systems Design & the Lean Startup Movement: An Ecological Approach to Innovation

By Brinkley Warren

The greatness of what Eric Reis and Steve Blank began with the Lean Startup Movement has been carried further by people like Tristan Kromer who helps to lead Lean Startup Circle, a global collective of lean startup practitioners that is now 80,000 strong.

Tristan’s October article about lean startup innovation applied successfully within the enterprise is not to be missed, read it here. 

Lean startup helps to drive innovation, and collective creative potential. Period. The potential for startup culture to collide with corporate culture is not only Great, it is inevitable, and the possibilities are exciting. We live in the Age of Creative Destruction.

It is most certainly possible for large, behemoth organizations, to completely transform themselves by re-imagining how internal talent can be optimized and maximized by empowering employees to behave more like startups do. A critical piece of the puzzle, however, requires that organizational silos be creatively destroyed or impressively connected in new ways.

For instance, talent acquisition and retention are fundamental to the benefits that a lean startup approach can bring to big corporations and/or legacy brands. In fact if you think about it, it’s kind of foundational. It’s people. Yet many HR departments are not involved in lean startup efforts within the enterprise.

It’s really important to acknowledge and seek to understand some of the foundational elements of lean startup movement such as the fact that a startup typically has a relatively flat organizational culture, the younger the startup is in its life-cycle.

There are many a priori elements such as team composition and team formation that get lost in the fray of a big enterprise environment. Lean Startup movement inside large organizations runs the risk of getting eaten alive by the entrenched corporate culture. An event will make waves, but will quickly ripple with diminishing returns.

To do Lean Startup right, it requires that the large enterprise must first inspire and empower startups within the organization to take risks and pursue opportunities. The empowerment aspect requires that the enterprise embrace a holistic and integral approach to their innovation strategy from the very beginning, the sooner the better.

From my time at the Odum School studying ecology as an undergrad I have a tendency to see the massive benefits that a more ecological approach to innovation will bring to the enterprise, and ultimately, to all of humanity. Ecosystems theory points towards holistic thinking and for the sake of transparency, I admit that the education and ideas that I was exposed to when I was twenty years old at Odum have impacted my own personal philosophy greatly over the years. In short, my own ontological bias is towards ecosystems theory.

We must embrace the interconnectedness of the various components, and be constantly maximizing for homeostasis. This is how to ensure your organization survives — it must embrace and empower this interconnectedness. Part of this is optimizing information flows, part of it is training and building capabilities, part of it is human resources management, some of it is system design and the creation of tools that help the innovative change effort to scale  — all of it must become custom-tailored for each unique organization.

In order to truly go lean, the enterprise must seed, feed, and empower their own innovation ecosystem. The old version of innovation was the Batman model of innovation — where only Batman can create cool toys that put him ahead of everyone else. The new version of innovation is the Avengers model — everyone or anyone in your organization can become a startup superhero and produce disruptive positive change, including unlocking scalable high-growth opportunities for the firm.

There are definitive strategies and best practices. For instance, ensuring that the incentives are aligned accordingly to a lean startup model is typically a strategic and behavioral change that must occur at the firm in order to allow the internal innovation ecosystem to thrive, yet this opportunity is easily missed by many enterprise leaders.

An organization will never go lean because of attending “an event” where they learn to go lean. Going lean is not an event. It’s not something that happens TO you. It’s something you ARE. These are the exact opposite.

Think about that for a moment longer.

Going lean represents a pursuit to organizational learning, startup culture, positive impact — it is a transformational pursuit, and should be considered as such.

A key challenge for such an Enterprise-Wide Lean Startup Transformation revolves around a central dilemma — and that being — a large legacy enterprise culture often includes principles, processes, and systems that are the opposite to the ones needed to maximize startup innovation and all of its “high velocity scalable growth” glory.

This is the risk for applying lean startup to the enterprise, and the opportunity. The risk for lean startup initiatives to be eaten alive by the existing culture of a large, old and/or entrenched organization is very high.

Incentives, teams, processes, principles, methods, and even the vision of the company itself are involved from the very beginning. To truly go lean, the entire system of the organization must be re-imagined and designed to maximize startup innovation flow so that everyone is collaborating and participating in the creation of value within small, nimble, focused teams like startups do.

As Tristan says,

“It takes business people to determine needs and establish feasibility. It takes designers to make the product easy to use. It takes engineers to create functionality. It takes marketers to make sure customers can get their hands on it and to set customer expectations. Every department must participate in the creation of value.”

This is why if an enterprise is to embrace Lean Startup, they must begin to seed, feed, and empower their own internal startup ecosystem, and this includes changing organizational culture and the various principles, processes, and systems that are already in place. A key part of the systemic change involves collaboration, information flows, flat culture, and a more entrepreneurial approach to how teams form and bring products and services to market.
To harness the competitive advantages of lean startups, the enterprise must prioritize and align lots of cross-functional resources in new ways. It is certainly not in the purview of a single unit or department to ensure this happens, but is systemic, and therefore it requires that many different business units and cross-functional teams collaborate in new ways that are more aligned to lean startups which are more competitive in today’s rapidly changing, disruptive marketplace.


By the way, I had the honor to study under Dr. James Porter — to this day, it is the only college class where I have ever witnessed a spontaneous standing ovation; that it happened more than once is a testament to the passion of one of the best ecology professors in the World. I highly recommend his recent TEDx talk: