Brooke Bornick returns from the Executive MBA International Business Study Trip to California, having experienced how innovation and people power lie at the heart of success in Silicon Valley.
The International Business Study Trip focused on exploring Silicon Valley as a cluster of innovation and entrepreneurship, with distinctive institutions and culture. To that end, two themes about innovation emerged:
1. Clichés abound about “failing fast” or “failing forward,” but the message this week was about taking risks and learning as much as you can along the way.
One speaker noted that if you haven’t failed much in the last few years, you probably have not taken enough risk. Another advised that we measure our outcomes in terms beyond dollars, as our time on earth is a one-time investment. The striking thing about Silicon Valley is that potential appears to be valued far above experience.
2. Radical and incremental innovation are different beasts with different habitats.
Radical innovation requires high mobility of capital and talent, which flourishes in locations where capital is invested by smaller, agile investors actively involved in a business. Radical innovation also flourishes in communities where employees can be hired quickly and with a minimum of red tape. Incremental change, however, typically results from a coordinated economy, where consensus is valued over agility. For example, fuel cells are developed in liberal market economies like the US and UK while wind energy plods forward in Europe’s coordinated market economies. Large companies which have become too big to retain their agility can still import innovation by acquiring smaller, innovative companies (or their intellectual property).
The primary lesson of the IBST experience was that people are the primary source of value.
From the speakers to my classmates, my IBST experience was about the people, not the place.
Silicon Valley appears to be awash with great speakers who spoke to the value of people over ideas or technology.
Vitaly Golomb of HP Tech Adventures set the stage for a meaningful week exploring innovation and entrepreneurship. Niko Bonatsos from General Catalyst convinced a large segment of the class to become venture capitalists in less than an hour and appeared to be cornered with follow up questions for longer than he expected. In Napa Valley, we learned from Paul Wagner about how a community can create billions in value through collaboration and marketing. Del Seymour of Code Tenderloin spoke of how even an under-resourced community can come together to create value for its residents. Stephen Brauer, a wine distributor, spoke in depth about the challenges of positioning your product in a foreign market with strict institutional restrictions and traditional dependence on personal relationships.
The conversations and bonds with my classmates deepened on this trip and are more important than anything from the course material.
Ali and I explored Big Sur, Pebble Beach and Monterey together, before caravanning up the coast to San Francisco with Enrique and Ricard to start the IBST. Sixteen of us sailed around San Francisco Bay on a beautiful afternoon. Rashid and Madhav shared parenting wisdom with me. Two dozen of us closed down a karaoke bar. Running groups logged miles along the Bay every morning. Nofel gave a concert on Coach B’s return from the Mondavi Winery. Journeys were shared and selfies proliferated.
Our classmates arranged two of the highlights of the IBST programme.
Cristina Savian from Autodesk arranged a private tour of the jaw-dropping Autodesk workshop at Pier 9, led by Larry Peck. The workshop was every bit of inviting as we expected and employees are invited to play in this incredible makerspace in their free time. Larry is a remarkably engaging engineer who made technology feel like an exciting invitation to dream up something new. The unexpected part of the story behind the Autodesk workshop is that Autodesk engages a cohort of artists-in-residence every six months to use the equipment in unexpected ways. Peck explained that Autodesk learns more about the tools’ shortcomings and potential by making them available to people who use it as the engineers never intended. This commitment to open-ended learning and innovation in the absence of a measurable impact on the company’s profitability surprised me.
Nasser Ahmed from Google organised an entire day at Googleplex, with lectures on site, bike rides around the campus, and lunch from the employee cafeteria. Jerome Engel from University of Berkeley spoke about the history of Silicon Valley to provide context for our experiences during the week. The most practical concept of the trip came from Dave Rensin at Google: the “Blameless Post-Mortem.” In the Blameless Post-Mortem, someone who breaks the system needs to find the error, correct it, improve the system so the next person doesn’t make the same error and write a report documenting the post-mortem. You can incentivise people to conduct these post-mortems by promoting them instead of blaming them, thus improving the overall integrity of the system and encouraging preventative measures over cover-ups. The Blameless Post-Mortem provides an incentive to create the culture you want by valuing the behaviors that exemplify that culture.
To be honest, I was not excited to study International Business in the United States, where I live. Afterward I realised that the IBST doesn’t require an exotic backdrop because people are infinitely more important than place. My “Big Idea” for my first startup hit me with a jolt on the flight home from San Francisco. The IBST has worked its magic already.