Wednesday in Palo Alto was a day of provocative juxtapositions that got us thinking about culture – in teams, in organisations, and in societies. How can startups build strong cultures that ensure everyone pulls in the same direction and works in sync, and yet also embrace diversity and unexpected perspectives that shake up assumptions?
Get (way) out of the building
The day started with a talk by Professor George Foster, Konosuke Matsushita Professor of Management at Stanford University Graduate School of Business. His theme was how to assess new venture risks and opportunities. He cautioned entrepreneurs about insularity, underlining how common it is for founders not to know how many others are working on the same idea. He advised not just to get out of the building, but to get out of the country, and to take a global perspective on how your startup is positioned relative to international competition.
Building a culture for success
The theme of how to challenge insularity was picked up at other points throughout the day. For us, the juxtaposition of two speakers that afternoon was especially interesting. Jonathon Baer, a long-time Valley resident, entrepreneur, investor and adviser, gave us an overview of his book ‘Decoding Silicon Valley’. He spoke about the powerful culture and norms in the Valley business community, and noted that Australian entrepreneurs are often under-prepared for the size of the U.S. market and the intensity of the competition. Jon touched on themes that we hear every time we visit – to succeed in America, you have to be bigger, louder, more confident.
When we met Craig Barratt, recently retired CEO of Access, Google, we encountered an immensely experienced and successful founder and Valley insider, who IPO’d two tech companies before moving to Google. Craig is also a quintessentially understated and unassuming Australian. He emphasised the importance of building great teams and culture that lets them thrive. “Financial results,” he observed, “are a backwards-looking indicator – team dynamics are a forward-looking indicator.” Greg Sutherland (CIO at Australia Post and delegation member) noted in his gracious thanks that Craig was clearly an ego-less leader. It was refreshing for us all to see that the humble outsider can prevail, and that while you do have to be ready for intense competition, you don’t have to conform to stereotype (bigger! louder! more aggressive!) to win in the Valley.
The influence of environment
Two other visits on Wednesday raised yet more interesting questions about culture. At Google, we learned about the strange dilemma posed by powerful company cultures: the more successful the spread of culture, the harder you have to work to overcome groupthink. Google has colonised land (buildings beyond the horizon!) and language (employees are Googlers, new ones are Nooglers, dog-loving ones are Dooglers) – but they also prize diversity, and go so far as to design their on-site cafes to be slightly too small. Why? Because in queues, people talk, they meet new people, they learn new things.
At the d.school at Stanford, Executive Director Sarah Stein Greenberg shared some fascinating stories about how they are teaching students and staff to build the outsider perspective into the very fabric of problem-solving. Using the design thinking techniques developed at the d.school, Sarah and her team are helping people to think differently, to think creatively, and to work together effectively while doing so.
In the most heart-warming story of the day, we heard about a team of d.school students who tackled the problem of the post-operative care of children with club feet, the leading cause of disability in the developing world. The team travelled extensively, worked with doctors on the ground, and stayed with families of affected children. A team with not a medic among them, they redefined what had always been considered a medical challenge as a parenting challenge: and designed a revolutionary brace that provides post-operative support and is actually used by families. The team has built a successful business around their insight.
The MAP delegation flew into a city deeply surprised and shaken by the recent election of Trump. All around us, people were asking – how did we miss this? At MAP, this made us think… Putting in place mechanisms that help reveal our biases and challenge our assumptions has never been more important. Whether it’s adopting lean startup approaches to understanding the customer, forming truly diverse teams that challenge group think, or consciously introducing behavioural practices that shake up the status quo, one thing remains… The ability to understand things from the perspective of others matters — and not only for startups.