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Six Lessons on Innovation from Silicon Valley – Harry Clark


Harry Clark, CEO coach, Amazon bestselling author and speaker shares his insights and observations made during the YPO Summit in Silicon Valley. Harry Clark will be speaking to our membership on March 28th at the Wyndham Grand Hotel.

As part of my role as the chair for the Americas for the YPO Entrepreneur and Innovation Network, I also co-chair the annual YPO Summit in Silicon Valley.  The Summit is focused on the trends that will define our future and learning from the top innovation companies how to innovate.  As entrepreneurs, innovation is key to the success and survival of our companies.  If we do not successful innovate our companies will be disrupted and, in time, will die.

The Summit featured a score of impactful speakers as well as numerous off-site visits to Google, Adobe, PayPal, the Samsung Innovation Center and one of the largest start-up accelerators, Plug and Play.  This is a summary of some of the interesting observations made during the event.

  • No Best Way to Innovate- What we learned is that there is no best way to innovate. Since we were literally visiting the most innovative companies in the world, and each company was vastly different in their approach to innovation, it is obvious that there is no “right way” to do it.
  • Samsung Innovation Center- Samsung is clearly one of the most innovative companies on the planet. They are focused specifically on a handful of vertical markets that are each in excess of $1 trillion.  Yes, one trillion dollar markets.  These markets include medical, food, internet of things, automotive and communications.  They are relying on aggregating leading technologies through continued acquisitions of smaller, creative and nimble companies within these verticals. They have a subsidiary on Sand Hill Road that is dedicated to making these acquisitions and are very strategic in their approach.  While the gorgeous Innovation Center is a feast for the eyes architecturally, and they have made what feels like a token gesture to resemble a google-esque environment (nap pods, one foosball table and a volleyball court), the culture is very regimented and serious. None of the “fun” accoutrement was ever seen being used nor was there a sense of high energy, excitement and creativity.  It felt very much like the MBA-version of innovation.  Strategy, ROI and KPI’s.
  • Google- Google must be about the most trusting employer in the world! You walk through their campus and it almost feels like a movie set, or perhaps, like walking through Downtown Disney.  People are playing volleyball, riding bikes, eating, talking, meeting and looking like they are all pretty happy, with high energy and excitement.  You’ll see older looking nerds with younger people forming teams.  There’s artwork everywhere- some of which just showed up because an employee wanted to plunk it down in the middle of the campus.  Hey, they used to not have a dress code until someone spent the day working with no clothes on.  Now the dress code is something like, “you have to wear clothes.”  Google’s strategy is, in essence, let’s focus on areas where we can really change forever major problems facing mankind.  The assumption being that someday, in some way, they may be successful.  And as a result of making life vastly better, they should be able to make a return on the investment.  There is no stated business case, strategy, ROI or financial analysis.  There are no detailed budgets for the projects.  The most common innovations are the google autonomous cars (which they never plan to manufacture) and artificial intelligence.  It truly felt like the kindergarten version of business and innovation.  But they are amazing at it and a leader worldwide.
  • Adobe- Adobe has transformed itself through innovation initiatives. The first huge bet they made was shifting its customers from “buying” the software license to paying a monthly recurring subscription fee. During this conversion, for a few months, they had a dip in revenues only to then have their best financial performance ever.  But at the heart of innovation for Adobe is Mark Randall’s Kick Box program.  Mark is its Chief Innovation Officer.  He created an education program that any employee can volunteer to take.  Once they go through the program they can opt-in for a kick box.  The kick box is a cool and simple red box, about the size of a box for a dozen Krispy Kreme donuts.  Inside the box are a series of cards that walk them through the innovation process.  Also inside the box is a $1,500 gift card that must be used on an innovation project and has a 90 day expiration.  They teach basic methods of how to test your idea, provide the basic tools and set you loose.  If the idea makes it through the kick box steps and is believed by the employee to be worthy of investment, they then need to find a manager somewhere in the company to sponsor the innovation within their existing budget.  It’s that simple.  There is absolutely no monitoring of any aspect of this program.  They don’t track the results of the overall program. They don’t track the innovations.  As a matter of fact, it is a fairly regular occurrence that some new high-performing division will announce a year later that, oh yeah, this was a kick box innovation.  Mark sold the CEO on the belief that if we educate our people and give them the basic tools, it’ll change the company and make lots of money.  And it works. Even better, Adobe has made it completely “open source”, meaning anyone in the world can download the kick box program from Adobe’s website and, in fact, Fed Ex will make you one, less, of course, the $1,500 gift card!  Is that cool, or what?
  • LaunchPad- Andrea Kates is a high energy, brilliant CEO of a San Francisco-based company called LaunchPad Central. Her company provides a software platform that provides a detailed process for innovation initiatives.  It provides a step-by-step system to monitor and manage innovation.  LaunchPad is being used worldwide with great success.  While companies such as Adobe have a completely decentralized approach to innovation, Andrea’s system provides an organized and methodical process for it.
  • Bottom line: It has to Fit Your Culture– The result of this experience is that whatever approach you take to implement innovation within your company, it needs to fit your culture. Perhaps the most important aspect of your culture is the level of trust you have with your employees.  If you have total faith and trust in them and your culture is very open and unregulated, the google or Adobe approach may make sense.  On the other hand, if you are a little more traditional and have a more command and control leadership approach and culture, the Samsung or LaunchPad approach would work well.  The important point is that you have to innovate or you’ll soon be out of business.  And there is no right way or best way to do it.  It has to work for you and your company.

Harry Clark