Motivated in equal measure by both business and pleasure, a recent trip to Silicon Valley for eight members of the Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO) was in part an annual meet-up; a chance to get together with old friends and catch up on the latest news. But it was also a fact-finding mission; an opportunity to get acquainted with the technologies and business models of today and tomorrow which are having – or will have – the biggest impact on our lives.
The YPO group may have thought that in their decades-long careers they had seen it all but the trip to California proved otherwise. Custom-designed for them by the Silicon Valley Innovation Center, the program introduced them to new ways of thinking in everything from planning and growth to profitability and pay scales. Among the most valuable lessons they learned was perhaps that “technology” is much more than just a gadget in your hand; it is also a way of life.
Artificial intelligence, real innovation
Artificial intelligence, or AI, as one of today’s most dynamic tech trends, featured prominently on the agenda of the three-day immersion program organized for YPO.
It made an appearance at Google HQ, where an engineering director spoke on the internet giant’s work into developing the sensors and machine learning techniques which it hopes will go on to power autonomous cars. Apart from gaining insight into Google’s plans to partner with motoring giants like GM and Ford, the YPO group also had much to discuss as their visit touched upon the ethical implications of driverless vehicles.
AI came to the fore again at Apple Park as the YPO delegates, apart from learning about the history of Apple and its legendary co-founder Steve Jobs, also found out about the company’s attempts to move users away from graphics-based computer interaction and into systems which rely on voice recognition.
The group also got a taste of augmented reality during their visit to Apple HQ whilst in the Visitor’s Center. For most this was something new but Tom Gessner, the chairman of Red Devil Equipment, was right at home. Much to the surprise of his YPO colleagues, he explained how the Apple experience is similar to playing Pokemon Go. He then provided a live demonstration of the game, in the process enhancing everyone’s understanding of both it and augmented reality technology.
Look back but go forward
Augmented reality was to come up again, this time on day three of the program as the group attended a presentation at global safety consulting and certification company Underwriters Laboratories, more commonly known today as UL. With some 120 years of history behind it, the company might not necessarily be thought of as a natural part of a tour of Silicon Valley focused on cutting-edge innovation. Yet to the surprise of the YPO members, the trip to UL turned out to be one of the most informative they took during the three days.
The reasons for this were several. For one, the group was able to find out how the consultancy has embraced technologies like blockchain in order to remain relevant in the twenty-first century. They also gained insights into UL’s plans going forward across five of today’s most important tech trends, namely:
- Internet of Things
- Autonomous Vehicles
- Augmented and Virtual Reality
The company proved to be even more fascinating when it explained how it structures its innovation teams and encourages them to come up with plans stretching up to ten years ahead.
Hearing that had a profound influence on the YPO delegates and left them more than a little inspired to affect change at their own companies.
Christian Lorentzen, the SVIC Innovation Evangelist accompanying the YPO tour, recalled how the participants said to him, “UL is going through the same exact digital transformation that our companies have to go through.”
Accepting the challenge
Of all the YPO group’s takeaways from their Silicon Valley journey, it was their arrival at an understanding of innovation as a mindset, not a technology, which perhaps left the deepest mark.
Again and again these established business magnates found their thinking being challenged.
First, there was Google, where they were introduced to a new paradigm on employee pay. At the search engine giant, an engineer can earn as much as a senior manager if her contribution to the company is deemed significant enough. That impressed the YPO delegates, who had always assumed that those who are higher up in the hierarchy should receive bigger paychecks.
Then there was UL, a company which all the tour members thought they knew well. After all, it has been in business for over a century. And yet they saw how the organization is in no way interested in banking on its prestigious history as a guarantee of future success. In fact, the YPO members were almost shocked to find out that where their own companies are planning one, maybe two years ahead, UL is nurturing innovation teams looking decades into the future.
At startup accelerator BootUp, meanwhile, a new mindset came to the fore according to which doing good for humanity is just as important as doing good for shareholders. That’s the Silicon Valley mentality, and not something the group had previously given much thought to. But they realized that it might be time to change their thinking.
The challenge to always look at things from a different angle came up again on day two of the program. During a discussion with SVIC President Andrey Kunov the YPO members heard how in Silicon Valley companies choose growth over profitability. Kunov told them how, if a startup could grow at a rate of 100% with zero profitability, it would. The YPO delegates could only laugh. Surely, they thought, it would be better to settle for 50% growth and some profitability?
Not in Silicon Valley.