Entrepreneurial Culture and Innovation in 3 Memes

Vish Nandlall (CTO of Telstra) hosted a company retreat focused on Innovation. He asked me for my thoughts on three key elements of entrepreneurial culture that would be meaningful to a G2000 company.

I’ve worked in Silicon Valley (and Seattle) for over 20 years at both startups Apigee, Ofoto, NetStudio) and large companies (Microsoft, BEA Systems, Fair Isaac). Since 2002 I’ve worked exclusively in enterprise software in external-facing roles, which has led me to understand and empathize with really large companies. As a result I tend to eschew “one-size-fits-all” frameworks.

That said, here are my top 3 memes to orient an enterprise toward entrepreneurial culture:

1. Science is Fun

Science is fun because it’s about learning. The right people for innovation are the curious ones who are driven to learn. Learning is *not* about being right. Learning is about incremental discovery of why things work and what’s possible. The tools of science — hypotheses, experiments, measurement — are the foundation of entrepreneurial culture. Shifting the language we use changes our cognitive behavior, so it is the intentional use of these terms that opens our minds to the attitude for innovation.

2. Right-size Risk

Risk is a heavy word in established companies. Enabling entrepreneurial behavior requires changing our relationship to risk and failure. A big entrepreneurial success requires many failures along the way; or to quote Thomas Edison, “I haven’t failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.” Compartmentalizing risk to short time frames — a month, a quarter — lets us manage in a way that allows for many trials. Some small number of those will lead to success, but we can’t predict which ones those are until we run the trials. “Bounded experiments” and “Portfolio management” are the key tools here, and we should use these terms intentionally.

3. Connections Cause Serendipity

All successful entrepreneurial cultures I’ve seen have a high degree of serendipity: people meeting by accident, having a chance conversation that leads back to a new idea or breakthrough. This is because innovation is frequently driven not by new ideas, but by recombination of existing ideas. Harvard University has rebuilt their campus to cause more of these by putting radically different research disciplines along the same physical hallway. As a result the personal connections between workgroups increase, and serendipitous conversations happen more frequently. Take advantage of small-world networks to increase your innovation output.

I’m curious about what other crucial memes belong in the change agent’s almanac for enterprises trying to grow their entrepreneurial culture. Hopefully these three will find a place on your MECE list.