Leaders in innovation—global lessons from Silicon Valley

October 6, 20175 Minute Read

No matter where you are in the world, you’ve definitely heard of Silicon Valley and the culture it breeds—there’s even an HBO show about it. But for all the jokes about eccentrically awkward billionaires, brogrammers, and hubristic visions of making the world a better place, Silicon Valley culture has yielded some of the world’s most successful, groundbreaking companies—HP, Apple, Facebook, Google, Uber, and Airbnb, to name a few.

These leaders in innovation are partly a product of their environment, as regions eager to cultivate their own entrepreneurial ecosystems are embracing the Silicon Valley model to stimulate homegrown innovation. Canadian cites are now taking pages from the Silicon Valley playbook, to build up a tech sector with a similar ethos.

Leaders in innovation

The power of Silicon Valley to create leaders in innovation isn’t the result of any one factor, but rather a constellation of interconnected factors that enable startups to succeed. With multiple world-class universities, America’s Bay Area has long been home to an abundance of tech talent. The “birthplace of Silicon Valley” is often cited as a garage in Palo Alto, where Stanford alumni David Packard and William Hewlett established an electronics company (HP) in 1939.

The area around Stanford became a “wellspring of innovation,” producing major advances in research and technology and attracting talented science and engineering students. This also inspired entrepreneurs and organizations dreaming big and looking for technical talent, producing more advances in research and technology. This cycle created a hub filled with people committed to thinking big, breaking down barriers, and pushing boundaries.

It’s highly abridged, but this brief history of Silicon Valley highlights the cultural components that led to its success. People are encouraged to take risks. Failure is acceptable, and mistakes are viewed as part of the learning process. Entrepreneurs, innovators, engineers, and investors all exist in proximity, so they can easily discover plenty of opportunities, exchange ideas and expertise, and work together.

Silicon Valley also prides itself on being a meritocracy. How you work or your pedigree are far less important than what you accomplish, and this point of view led to radical changes in the way offices are run. Companies like Google and Apple were pioneers in rethinking the office as a place intended to encourage collaboration and creativity.

Here’s the lesson: They literally and metaphorically broke down cubicle walls to get ideas flowing. Instead of dress codes and a nine-to-five schedule, they aim for informality and employee satisfaction. The idea is simple: Silicon Valley tech companies create offices people don’t want to leave.

Getting other countries on board

Countries around the world—from China and Kenya to Finland and Canada—are striving to create their own “Silicon Valleys” and produce leaders of innovation. But this can run counter to local culture. In some cases, creating a local Silicon Valley requires carving out a bubble where workplaces run differently and deviate from prevailing norms.

China’s tech world has copied the valley’s innovator-meet-investor network of incubators, accelerators, and venture capitalists. Startup employees and leaders actively seek to question authority and think outside the box—two attributes widely discouraged in corporate China.

Adopting Silicon Valley culture calls for creating an environment where people feel free to take risks and fail. Questioning authority is an essential part of disruption. Innovation requires thinking outside of the box, and coming up with and pursuing big ideas requires audacity “laced with grit,” boldness, and a willingness to experiment. If these ideals aren’t woven into the fabric of the local culture, then you need to find ways to instill them. For example, at Baidu, one of China’s largest tech companies, employees receive copies of a book called “Baidu Analects” that contains stories about employees who are “borderline insubordinate,” stick to their guns, and prevail. For years, Facebook held the philosophy of “move fast and break things.”

Company culture comes from the bottom up (i.e., via book distribution), as well as from the top down. Company leaders can promote innovation by destigmatizing failure, giving people room for error, and not penalizing them when they make mistakes.

Here’s the lesson: Leaders set an example and a tone, so if the CEO talks openly about missteps they’ve made—or if team managers treat mistakes as launching points for constructive discussion—it sends a clear message. Employees learn to trust and feel safe with leaders that admit to their mistakes.

Celebrating collaboration

Density is another component of building a vibrant startup ecosystem. Entrepreneurs, investors, and mentors need to be in proximity to take full advantage of what other members offer, whether it’s capital to grow the business, coding lessons, or advice. Calgary, for instance is ensuring that it has the right policies to attract capital to the market, as well as the means to promote it. Establishing incubators, accelerators, and venture capital firms is a smart way to ensure each part of the ecosystem can access the resources they need. Placing these organizations nearby—maybe even in the same building or complex—encourages serendipity and facilitates collaboration.

The number of accelerators and incubators around the world has soared throughout the past five years, and for good reason: They provide the resources, expertise, density, and collaboration that help fledgling entrepreneurs get off the ground. The importance of collaboration—both internal and external—can’t be understated. Studies from Nielsen and Frost & Sullivan found that collaboration drives the emergence of good ideas and company performance. There’s a reason why Facebook and Google got rid of cubicles and filled their offices with free snacks. These design components make it easy for employees to interact with one another.

Here’s the lesson: Collaboration-centric office design is one way organizations can bring the Silicon Valley ethos home. Another unique feature is the concept of hacker houses that are springing up in Toronto, where the lines between work and play are blurred. Ultimately, there’s only one Silicon Valley, but as startup hubs crop up around the world, it’s clear that leaders in innovation can emerge anywhere given the right conditions.

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