Independent business and the future of innovation

Following in the footsteps of our elders

Up until only a few generations ago, we used to be destined to follow into the footsteps of our elders. A son of a farmer was likely to become a farmer. If your mother had a small convenience store, you were apt to enter into that trade as well. Even now, a lot of lawyers are sons and daughters of lawyers. And if, like was the case for many of us, your parents worked for “the man”, you grew up with an understanding that working for an employer was a good thing. Innovation was evolutionary. It was based on what we built on the shoulders of those who came before us. Because we knew those who came before us. There was an individual relationship.

And let’s be clear, working for “the man” really used to be good. There was an implicit understanding that if you did your best and tried hard, your employer would take care of you too. There was reciprocity in the relationship. However, it mainly put the employer in the position of the parent an the employee in the position of the child.

The onset of employee puberty

While there were always those who were seeking independence from these structures, their numbers have increased since the onset of the 2008 crisis, which for all intents and purposes is still going on today. The crisis really appears to have pushed a whole group of people into developing their own small businesses.

Contrary to times past, the recent ruptures of the employee-employer relationship were most often not on the best of terms. It played out like a typical puberty scenario. Note I’m not taking positions here. But puberty is often a situation in which there is a total breakdown of any form of civilized communication with both parties feeling the hurt but neither of them having the maturity to do something about it.

There is a total rejection of the corporate world and its functioning by those stepping out and starting their own small businesses, showing the world they can manage on their own. And there is a lot of achievement in that. I have a huge admiration for people daring to go that path. It often involves facing a lot of fears and uncertainty. So I applaud that with all my heart.

BUT, eventually, going that path also involves the realization and recognition that no matter how much you may despise the corporate world, there are parts of it that make sense. As Umair Haque has pointed out, the corporate world is very good at solving large scale problems.

The advantages of smaller businesses in present day innovation

What small businesses bring to the table is their flexibility as well as their ability to propose their own unique view on a problem. Bringing in a networked structure of small businesses to look at a problem that has daunted corporate structures may actually lead to solutions that are unthinkable within that corporate structure, because the flexibility just is not available.

But certain results will never be achievable by small businesses alone, as much as certain solutions can never be found by large corporate structures. The key question that remains is how to capitalize on that understanding.

I believe that more and more independent, small businesses need to find each other. The flexible combination and recombination of independent structures into ad hoc solutions to problems the market has been struggling with retains both the quality of the independent expert and the combined force of the whole … provided it can be managed well. This would use a number of advantages of the corporate model without sacrificing the small business advantage.

The key to individual value creation will be good project management

In the industrial era, corporations developed to realize economies of scale. In the post-industrial era, this was copied to services. This led to our ability to produce a lot of the same things any times. What we need now is a way to create very specific, individual value to the customer. We are no longer trying to solve just a problem. We are now in the business of trying to solve “his” or “her” problem. That’s an entirely different challenge, which can only be answered by the unique combination of specific expertise and the insight to combine this expertise to the point of successful project completion.

There lies, in my opinion, a significant opportunity. The bringing together is achievable by the tools and networks we’re all linked into. The real in-project coordination, supporting these experts into timely delivery of a quality project within a budget, will be where the near future challenge lies. It makes me realize we have far too few project managers.

Answering that challenge will be a focus area for the near future. It’s an issue in education, in product and services sales, even in development aid. And it is the prime area of innovation for the years to come.

The good news? We likely already have all the pieces of the puzzle. We just need to learn how to put them together.