When Steve Jobs said that it was ‘more fun to be a pirate than to join the navy’, he was highlighting the fact that large companies are much slower to respond to change than startups.

This is the speedboat versus oil tanker conundrum. The bureaucracy that runs many established companies is inadvertently designed to create inertia. This is not very helpful in a fast-changing world.

Here’s the recording of a recent Trending Topic Talk + Q&A with Tendayi Viki for Innov8rs Community: How Innovators Can Overcome Obstacles And Thrive In Corporate Environments

Unlike startups, large companies also have to follow the rules. As Steve Blank notes:

Startups can do anything.
Companies can only do what’s legal.

Having no business model and no market reputation to defend makes startups quite dangerous as competitors. If you combine this with the fact that startups are now better funded and their incentives are aligned with their investors’ goals, large companies are competing with a formidable foe.

Meanwhile, inside most large companies there are still leaders who question the need to innovate. To be fair, there is a discernible shift in leadership attitudes towards innovation taking place in most organisations. However, in some large companies there is still an intractable core of leaders who actively resist innovation projects as
a waste of time and resources.

It is a myth that innovation is sexy. In a lot of companies, it is career suicide. So, while startups are focused on resisting enemies and competitors that are outside their company, innovators within large companies have to contend with enemies and competitors inside their own companies as well.

The problem is that corporate innovation is a paradox. Intrapreneurs have to innovate for the future, inside a machine that is designed to run the current core business. It is the management of the current business that tends to get in the way of innovation. The bureaucracy and incentives of the organisation are all geared towards improving and exploiting current success.

At the same time, these large corporations have entrepreneurial employees who are constantly trying to innovate. As far as I am concerned, these people are crazy. They wake up every morning and go to work to swim against the tide. This is insane! And yet, they exist: passionate employees who are committed to helping their company become more innovative. They can see the future coming and they are committed to ensuring that their company survives in that future.

Some leaders are happy with these crazy innovators. But some also view them as disruptive rebels, aka ‘pirates in the navy’. These leaders actively create barriers to block innovation efforts, often driving intrapreneurs to quit their jobs in frustration. When innovation does succeed inside a large company, it is often in the form of one-off projects that have had to be guided through the landmines of corporate politics. This can be demoralising.

Most intrapreneurs recognise that they cannot keep doing innovation as a series of ad hoc projects that have to jump through political hurdles. They realise that there is a need for some changes inside their companies to allow innovation to happen as a repeatable process. But how do they get this done? How do pirates in the navy slowly transform their companies to become more supportive of innovation?

My latest book was written for passionate innovators who are working inside companies, especially large ones. If you have ever asked yourself the questions below, may latest book is for you:

  • How do we get our company ready for innovation?
  • How do we change the culture within our company?
  • How do we start a movement that transforms how innovation is managed?
  • How do we influence our leaders to prioritise innovation?
  • How do we work with detractors and naysayers?
  • How do we collaborate with enablers such as finance, HR, legal and branding?
  • How do we bring about lasting change that sticks?
  • We get the theory and we get that innovation is important – but how do we actually get it done in our companies?

I am totally convinced that it is possible for innovators to succeed as pirates in the navy. In fact, I am more and more convinced that it is more fun to be a pirate in the navy. It can truly be the best of both worlds. But intrapreneurs have to be authentically interested in building a bridge between their innovation programs and the main business within which they work.

The only way to succeed as pirates in the navy is to transform the company so that piracy becomes a part of its institutional structures and processes. I will repeat this point again: innovation has to become a part of the structures and processes inside large organisations. We have to do the hard work of navigating the choppy waters of corporate politics. We no longer want innovation to succeed as one-off projects. What we want is a repeatable process for continuously creating new growth.

I look forward to sharing the lessons I have learned on how to do this work in large companies. Pirates In The Navy is now available on Amazon. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts- so connect with me on LinkedIn and let me know!


This is a guest post by Tendayi Viki, Associate Partner at Strategyzer and author of Pirates In The Navy and The Corporate Startup.