Though many CEOs may not yet be willing to admit it, every company is effectively a technology firm. When asking companies to describe their bottom line, one analyst has captured this point well:
Getting properly aligned with the mindset, methods, and best practices of technological innovation means learning from the best influencers in the world – and for that, there’s no better place than Silicon Valley. McKinsey even stated that if it were a country Silicon Valley would rank as one of the world’s top 50 economies!
Innovation is not always about creating something brand new but often involves taking an existing process or device and repurposing it. A growing number of organizations in sending their top executives on 3-5 day visits to Silicon Valley in order to learn and observe real-time innovation at companies like Google, Facebook, Apple, Tesla, and countless others.
Specifically, an “innovation boot camp” provides business leaders with a more immersive exposure to the entrepreneurial approach of Silicon Valley, and helps answer typical concerns for companies looking to innovate better:
- What makes Silicon Valley companies so innovative?
- How are disruptive technologies originating from there going to impact their business model?
- How do they create partnerships with the existing SV ecosystem?
In the same spirit of innovation that they seek to imbibe, companies must develop new approaches to training corporate leaders for the digital economy. Here are 7 compelling reasons why introducing your board of directors to the entrepreneurial approach of Silicon Valley offers great ROI:
1. Get Out of Your Comfort Zone
Innovation means different things to different people and some definitions tend to be long and clunky. In very simple terms “innovation is creating new value and/or capturing value in a new way.” It’s about taking an existing but broken process and repurposing it. Many of the world’s most successful brands – Apple, Uber, Slack – looked for different ways to solve customer pain points., whether that was making it easier to find transportation, a cheaper place to stay on vacation, or better ways to communicate across the enterprise. The founders of these companies had to deliberately think “outside the box” and approach the same old problems from a fresh perspective. Much of the difficulty with innovation is the human factor; it’s really challenging to change existing patterns of behavior. People by default like familiarity and routine and when something or someone threatens a fundamental paradigm then it’s easy to feel threatened.
For example, companies no longer own the whole value chain of people, assets, and capabilities. Instead, they must acknowledge that these elements are dependent on the broader relationships with customers and community. Innovation is all about creating value for the end user and in order to do that well corporate leaders must switch their paradigm to a focus on creating shared value. Hence, innovation implies getting out of one’s comfort zone and embracing a new way of thinking, acting, and seeing the world. Visiting companies like Google, Facebook, and Apple is not all fun and games nor intended for the sole purpose of learning about the latest and greatest technologies. The best ROI on a visit of this sort happens when a corporate board generates a call to action to passionately embrace new ways of doing business for the purpose of driving higher levels of value for their customers.
2. Promotes Company Buy-In
It is one thing to talk about innovation, and a lot of companies pay lip-service to the concept, but successful implementation is another thing altogether. In fact, we hear a lot about the difficulty of driving innovation within enterprises. But there are steps you can take to create an innovation culture within your company:
- Strong executive mandate
- Keep a flexible innovation strategy
- Don’t “strangle” the innovation process with impossible KPIs
- Open up the organization to collaboration
- Build a culture of intrapreneurship by empowering your people
- Make a long-term commitment to innovation
In keeping with the first principle, when a company sends its board of directors or corporate leadership on a study tour of Silicon Valley that sends a resounding message to the rest of the company that “we are in this game to win.” A strong executive mandate is the key that makes or breaks a company’s approach to innovation.
After executives attend a 3-5 day immersion program in Silicon Valley, visit disruptive companies – like Uber, Tesla, and Apple – and participate in countless workshops and debriefs, they become excited and fired up to go home and start testing and implementing what they have learned. Some key learning will include:
- It’s about solving customer problems and providing elegant solutions
- “Pace is the new game” patterned after continual rapid prototyping, iterations, and testing
- Markets are redefined around providing convenience and “frictionless” customer service
- Brand and reputation are more important than ever
- Emerging technology implications will be profound
- Millennials are big players in the game but wisdom is needed
If followed correctly, these observations will accomplish a pressing mandate for change. The outcomes will be similar to what one bank board member reported: “We saw more change and urgency introduced in the board in the last two days than in the entire last two years.” That’s a powerful statement!
4. Eye Opening Reality Checks
As exciting and cool as it to visit the top innovative companies in the world, and to learn from the influencers who are changing the world one product and idea at a time, there is also a very sobering side to this experience. One executive reported that he learned Apple can create, design and prototype a new business application in 3 days and that new business models and applications are released to the market in 10-11 weeks. While most companies take 3 days to organize a meeting! And the reality is that quite possibly some participants will come away from a week-long immersion in Silicon Valley feeling a bit demoralized. In other words, the experience may all seem a bit overwhelming: “How could we ever compete on that level or implement those changes or rise to those expectations?” And all of this is expected and perfectly normal.
The key here is to set realistic goals and expectations. The goal for a typical company is not to become the next Google, Apple, or Tesla. These companies didn’t get where they are in a single day or month or year. Likewise, executives should not go back home and try to boil the ocean and mandate change as a top-down model. This will only frustrate and alienate employees you are trying to win over. Instead, aim to provide participants with a deeper awareness of what it take to compete in a high-stakes, competitive digital economy. At the end of the day, the transition to an innovation culture will have its share of road bumps and potholes, but it should be as invigorating as it is eye-opening and as challenging as it is rewarding.
5. Build Networks & Partnerships
Ultimately, one of the major outcomes executives will achieve by visiting Silicon Valley is developing the groundwork for strategic partnerships with an organization in the existing ecosystem. For example, the hotel chain Four Seasons partnered with a startup called Medallia, which develops a digital platform for customer feedback and customer experience monitoring across properties. The resulting relationship not only turned Medallia into an industry leader but also established Four Season as a front and center innovator who successfully anticipates guests’ needs. As McKinsey stated, “Done properly—with C-level strategic urgency on both sides—these can be win–win partnerships.
6. Immersion Reinforces Doing
As anyone who has attended a hackathon can attest, the investment of time and energy to prototype a product in less than 3 days does pay rich rewards through a shared feeling of teamwork and the satisfaction of achieving the desired outcome. Similarly, through an immersion in a steady round of company visits, presentations, workshops, and debriefs, study tour participants effectively learn in real-time to inculcate the patterns of change that must be implemented back home. Exposure to dozens of conversations around innovative business models, creating an innovation culture, managing change in the digital economy, rapid prototyping on 3-day sprints, and much more, not only provides a major impetus for change but also rests on a sense of shared accountability with other board members. Innovation at the corporate level is not a solo-enterprise but requires participation and collaboration at many levels. Much planning and deliberating and organization will be required in order to establish the roadmap. But at the end of the day, the most decisive outcome of the board of directors will be to “just get started” on the path to developing or renewing their innovation strategy. Perhaps the most important result of all is to keep the momentum going – 2 weeks, 2 months, 2 years after the study tour ends.
There are many perceived benefits derived from sponsoring corporate executives on a week-long trip to Silicon Valley, and a number of those have been carefully outlined above. However, at the end of the day, the question remains as to “how is it working out” in the lives and cultures of those companies that have adopted this approach. Consider the following powerful success stories showcasing some of the breakthroughs achieved by visiting the world’s global innovation hub and how this experience transformed the way those participants approach and think about innovation.
Axel Springer, a German media company, sent 80 of its executives on a visit to Silicon Valley in 2013 and reports the following achievements from this experience:
- A number of workshops were organized to provide follow-up on the learnings and takeaways from the trip; it is reported that many of the adoptions from those sessions have been initiated across the enterprise.
- New synergies have emerged between the commercial and IT staffs as they work together on new products and enhancements.
- The real and total impact of the study tour is best expressed in the following statement by the CEO of Axel Springer: “The trip to Silicon Valley ultimately produced not only knowledge, ideas, and a concrete plan of action, it also made the change process tangible and real to those who took part — and it caused things to happen at a symbolic and emotional level in the company and in the industry far beyond the small circle who traveled to San Francisco.”
Australia’s Royal Automotive Club of Victoria (RACV) visited Silicon Valley in May 2016, reporting on their experience:
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