It's a recognised problem: an organisation finds or creates a market for its products or services, achieves great scale and success, and the all-consuming focus on maintaining and growing this success inhibits investment in new areas, often for fear of cannibalisation.
A good example of an organisation trying to overcome this is Comic Relief. Arguably one of the UK's best known charities, its brand is recognisable to everyone thanks to its successful Red Nose Day and, more recently, Sport Relief campaigns.
Comic Relief's success lies in its canny combination of entertainment and fundraising. Great entertainment from upcoming or much loved personalities has proved itself a potent counterpoint to the emotional, heart-tugging films about the issues.
The success of this model means that Comic Relief has grown significantly over the last decade. It has a central staff who work across various departments for fundraising, grant giving and other essential business functions that allow it to do its work across the world. All of their energy is focused on raising as much money as they can in tried and tested ways and there's a nervousness about investing in something new that might not bring the return. As a charity, there is a strong commitment to value for money.
This is where the techniques involved in lean start up can help big businesses or charities. The start up process is, by its very nature, fast and inexpensive. It is designed to place an idea in the hands of a consumer within a week, rather than a year. In the start up business over use the terms 'iteration' and 'minimum viable product', but the ideas they contain are simple - getting a product to a customer fast allows you to see immediately whether it works or not without any significant investment.
Often, it doesn't, but instead of losing months and £millions before you get this feedback, you can return on Monday to tweak and redesign your product until it turns into something that your customers genuinely want. Failure is something we welcome. It's the X Factor model: only when you have massaged your product into the exact thing you know your customers desire, following weeks of their feedback (and 11 failures), do you release it to the market. It's market research at a digital pace.
To take advantage of this idea, Comic Relief and Sidekick Studios have set up the Exploralaboratorium, an area where ideas can be tested, broken, fixed and tested again. The Exploralaboratorium is part of the Nominet Trust funded Sidekick School, a unique incubation service designed to help the voluntary sector build digital products or services that can generate revenues and help organisations become more sustainable. The Exploralaboratorium is a lean start up style lab designed to help the charity address important questions of fundraising beyond its core TV led campaigns. It's only a few weeks in, but already the lab has created an app to encourage donations and a website which would reward schools that participate in Red Nose Day and Sport Relief and help increase their long term support.
Other organisations can learn a lot from Comic Relief's work to try innovating like a start up. Despite what big developers will tell you, it is possible to make a functional web platform in a day, and a good one in a week. The beauty of hacking culture is that you can write a code in a few hours that will do more or less what you want it to; at that point you do all the testing mentioned above, with minimal loss of time/ money. The result could be a product that genuinely solves the problem, for a fraction of the cost.
Other brands like Barclays and Red Bull are starting to capitalise on start up techniques, turning out innovations at record pace. Their additional advantage of brand and budget mean they may well turn the tables on the minnows and become the future leaders of start up...