By Deborah Perry Piscione
Deborah Perry Piscione is a Silicon Valley-based entrepreneur and the author of the upcoming book Secrets of Silicon Valley: What Everyone Can Learn from the Innovation Capital of the World (April 2, 2013, Palgrave Macmillan)
It's been a long time since I've been around a traditional corporate executive. Six years ago I migrated from the East Coast to Silicon Valley, where I've adopted a completely different mindset. As I prepare to embark on a book tour that includes speaking at many sizeable, yet traditional corporations around the world, I've been having lots of conversations about the content of my upcoming book, Secrets of Silicon Valley: What Everyone Else Can Learn from the Innovation Capital of the World (Palgrave Macmillan, April 2, 2013).
No matter what our starting point, the conversation inevitably gets around to innovation. What exactly is it? How does Silicon Valley do such a good job of it? Can other companies do it too?
What I have come to understand is that innovation isn't something traditional companies can add on, like a warehouse or benefits package. It's not an add-on anything. It's built into the cultural foundations and soil of Silicon Valley, a unique environment that spurs innovative thinking and performance.
Here's how I see the difference between how Silicon Valley and traditional corporations approach innovation:
Big corporations: Offer and throw some bonus money at employees who create intellectual property value, but only if the work leads to a patent.
Silicon Valley: Foster an environment that supports creativity, encourages employees to take risks, and tolerates failure.
Needless to say, the Silicon Valley way has a better track record. But how do they do it? While all night hack-a-thons may be fine for the twenty-somethings, that's not a model for the entire workforce.
The answer is simple: you have to value your employees.
Take Google, a company renowned for innovation and market success. It's not just Google's famed benefits and compensation package that sends the message to employees: "We value you." It's also a remarkably lively, creative, and colorful place to work.
Hey, Googlers (how Google employees refer to themselves), feeling stifled today? Why don't you go out for a game of bowling? Take a yoga class. Ride one of our Google bikes around campus - heck, ride it all the way over to the San Francisco Bay and come back in a few hours when you've worked out all your mental and physical kinks.
Google actually talks like that to its employees and offers dozens of other activities that, outside Silicon Valley, would sound more like play than work.
Or consider IDEO, one of the world's most innovative consulting firms. IDEO helps its corporate clients by building innovation into everything from product design to business and community-building processes to re-branding.
What does innovation look like to IDEO? The company's designers have invented some truly great stuff - things the world would be much poorer without, such as the mouse for the Apple computer, the Palm Pilot, the deodorant stick, and the standup toothpaste dispenser.
But at IDEO, a great idea doesn't have to be a grand invention that launches a new design or product line. It can simply be improving something that already exists.
IDEO co-founder David Kelley says if human resource professionals want to attract more innovative thinkers, they should seek out "T-shaped employees." These are individuals with deep expertise in one specific area who've also gained broad knowledge in a range of other areas. So think of a highly-qualified software engineer (the vertical part of the T) who can talk knowledgeably about higher education and art history (the horizontal part of the T).
According to Kelley, IDEO isn't actually teaching new skills; it's restoring "creative confidence" - the natural ability to generate new ideas and the courage to try them out.
Take, for example, the fear of a child who has to endure the harrowing experience of a CT Scan.. In a TED talk in 2012, Kelley spoke about children who walk into the CT room and are handed a black felt pirate cap. "Aaaarrr ye ready?" the technician growls to them. The child walks a set of brown planks leading to his CT ship - actually a specially decorated CT machine. The exam bed look like the hull of the ship, and the tube is a wooden steering wheel. From a nearby vaporizer comes the pleasant scent of tropical coconuts.
The day I toured IDEO's offices and warehouses in Palo Alto, I saw a place where my twin boys, who are turning eight, would love to hang out - every day. There are no business suits. There are no stuffy boardrooms. Executives in blue jeans sit cross-legged on the floor, surrounded by big boy toys like 3D printers and large tables with Exacto knives and foam core for people to congregate and make fast, rough prototypes. There is even an outdoor grassy knoll right in the middle of the offices that one would think serves for visiting children or their playful parents. Rather, the space is designated (among others at IDEO) to foster collaboration. It is this collaboration that fosters creativity that leads to innovation.
Yes, Silicon Valley thrives because there are a lot of smart people who live and breathe innovation. But there is so much more. There is flat management, where there are smart people in the room at all levels who contribute and are heard irrespective of their pay, age, or years of experience. This is how people continue to grow way beyond their skill set, how they treat and value one another, how people give back, and how they learn not to take "it" so seriously.
The roots of Silicon Valley were planted back in the 1950s, when it was mostly fruit orchards and quaintly known as the Valley of Heart's Delight. A bunch of East Coast transplants with disdain for the old hierarchies came to the valley and set up shop. Their easygoing, open culture took root, deepened and flourished - because they appreciated changing lifestyles and habits. Because they were ready to dispense with the old habits and respond to the ways people actually wanted to live their lives.
Now that's innovative thinking.
This material published courtesy of Singularity University.