5 ways to inject startup culture in your firm

Startup cultures are characterized as being creative, passionate, innovative, and agile. Every employee in a startup is responsible for the success of their project and works in multiple lanes to ensure that success. They’re invested emotionally and are motivated to take on any responsibility they can to succeed. These are attractive characteristics that motivate some companies to embed that culture within their own to help raise their success bar.

Embedding a startup culture can realize many benefits, but there are some limitations that must be recognized in the government contracting space. In order to explore this, let’s take a wide lens look at the Washington, D.C., and the surrounding area, and we’ll see that:

  • A large portion of the economy of Northern Virginia consists of government contractors employed directly or indirectly by the federal government.
  • The government has a desire for IT modernization to incorporate advances in technology such as cloud, mobile, and AI.
  • Private companies are looking to attract fresh talent to gain an advantage over their competitors in a fast paced environment.
  • The startup community isn’t as developed as Silicon Valley.

Private companies desire to have an embedded startup culture that has been exposed to and experimented with new technologies. This attracts fresh talent that have learned new tech, that seek work on the latest cool projects, and keep up with the times.

This company also benefits from this talent seeking to produce goods and services for awarded contracts.

However, in the GovCon space contracts have legal implications which restrict the creativity and flexibility that startups have countering the desires mentioned. This is a challenge because startups aren’t limited in what they can do during the development phases. They can take any necessary steps to reach their objective and pivot as necessary.

Working on a contract, the path is determined beforehand and there is a commitment to deliver on a specific set of requirements that have legal implications if delivery isn’t possible.

Another way of putting it:

“Startups can do anything.

Companies can only do what’s legal.”

Steve Blank - Stanford Adjunct Professor

In startups, every employee is responsible for the success of a project and is willing to step forward and take tasks that aren’t in their areas of expertise, outside of their comfort zones, take creative measures to solve a problem, and be vested in the outcome. This leads to a positively charged environment driven for success. When the company owners have the freedom to make decisions without restriction, this allows for creative solutions and entrepreneurship.

Working for the government on an awarded contract, a team is assembled with members that have their roles explicitly defined. The contract includes a proposed solution as well as the objectives, methods, and measurables that need to be fulfilled for a successful delivery.

From an employee perspective, the desire to succeed is primarily driven by salary and job stability. This doesn’t discount the desire to learn and grow a career, however, in my experience employees do their job in the hopes that the employer will guarantee the continuation of the project, build a pipeline, and with their efforts in their respective areas get the contract extended or get a new one.

This limits the possibility for innovation during the contract period and could lead to a stagnant team that doesn’t grow to their potential, and could limit the possibility of the customer benefiting from ideas proposed along the way.

Working on a contract to fulfill its requirements doesn’t mean that you can’t advise your customer towards new solutions as you are engaged with them. That comes with long term relationships, trust, and a proven track record. When it’s realized that there are things that can be done for a better outcome, this could lead to a contract mod. The primary focus though, is producing the goods and services agreed upon.

The government has been striving to modernize and utilize the latest technologies, and embrace new development methodologies. For example Google “Agile in Government” and you’ll find a slew of articles and sites with lessons learned and challenges on why it’s hard to implement in GovTech. The desire to improve is there, but it’s stifled by different factors.

So how can a company or government realize these ambitions to compete with the development savvy and innovation of startups and realize their modernization goals?

With a mix of startup and corporate culture and with the understanding of government nuances, there are benefits that can be realized. There are various activities that can be done, that when combined together provide a holistic approach to foster a hybrid culture that serves the goals mentioned above. Solutioning becomes better, dispersing advise becomes easier, employee morale becomes higher, and the reputation as a thought leader becomes apparent. All of which, comply with constraints that come with government work.

Here are five things that can be done :

  • Top Down Vision: Leadership plays a crucial role in the success of merging cultures. Embracing a startup culture isn’t just a checkbox to fill so that a company seems progressive. Leadership must lead by example and provide an environment for employees to have the freedom to speak, engage, and feel that others are listening. If leadership doesn’t lead by example, enable, encourage, and engage in startup-like activities, then employees will feel that adopting a startup culture is a job requirement. Which I feel we can agree won’t foster a positive work environment.
  • Labs and Internal Innovation: Create an environment that allows people to share ideas, explore technologies, and act on them. Having an environment for open innovation can bring surprising results such as creative solutions that can be used as a service offering in the future.
  • Tech Talks: You could call these Brown Bags, Learning Sessions, Meetups. It doesn’t matter. When a space is made available for employees to bring their ideas to the front without judgment, this opens the opportunity to learn, collaborate, and participate in the larger culture. This outlet will inspire others to think creatively and start a conversation across people and teams.
  • Staff: Hire staff that have startup traits. Ideally, they would understand the nuances of government contracts, and if not, that’s something that can be taught.
  • Mentorship and guidance: Mentor the staff and guide them towards a unified vision while giving them room to innovate. Encourage creative ideas and assess if this can fall within the accepted limitations of a contract. If the ideas can’t be applied on a project, then take the opportunity to decouple it or package it in a way that can be used as a tool that could be picked up by others in the organization.

For the last 7 years, I’ve worked for ITG; a digital consulting firm ( delivering IT systems modernization and business transformation. I was hired as the tenthh employee and it’s grown since to 400+ people working in various sectors in the Government developing solutions utilizing the latest technologies and platforms. I joined ITG because of the startup culture, ambition, and vision it had. In time with rapid growth, the culture seemed to disappear, but through a top down vision and desire to maintain these traits, and people actively working to preserve them, steps have been taken to keep and nurture it.

It’s a balancing act in a unique environment here in the D.C. area in the GovTech space that ultimately benefits everyone involved. The customer, the company, and the employee.


Harvard Business Review:Why you can’t just tell a company to be more like a startup Tips for Building a Startup Culture within an Established Company

Financial Times - How to build a startup culture in a big company How to build a startup culture in a big organization

Washington Post: While federal employment shrinks in D.C., government contractors are on a hiring spree

WTOP: Exactly how many Washingtonians work for the federal government?

Government Contractor - A definition:

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About the Author

Sharif Aboulnaga is a program manager at ITG ofArlington, Virginia, and is co-founder of the startup Doumari LLC, a mobile app developer.

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