There is a reason, Mark Zuckerberg sits right next to the Summer Intern from University of Waterloo (True Story – Daughter of an Indian friend of mine!). No separate office, no glass windows to look out of!
Sergei Brin and Larry Page are worried sick of “Not Enough Innovation” out of Google!
They all focus on building the right culture for their people so that they can out-innovate their best competitors in the world!
Netflix, Google, Facebook all encourage and even require their employees to engage about 25% of their time in some pet technical project of their own. Some of these turned out to be big money makers, many failed!
Their philosophy is that if you have not failed enough number of times, you are not trying hard enough!
It all goes back to the company culture you build from Day 1! I have done it a number of times putting together engineering groups in multiple companies in Silicon Valley and I have done the same thing in India! If anything it works even better in India, if it is any consolation! Employees loved it and so very highly motivated, especially if they came from other companies in India!
Do you view yourself as the Captain of the ship who just makes very high level decisions and leave your first officers and people who report to them alone to do their jobs? Do you trust them from Day 1 to make the right technical decisions, stepping in only to guide them if they are straying too much from your mission?
Many of us come from a technical background and as engineers, our first instinct is to jump in and make the right decisions for our employees. Wrong!
In other words, do you treat that employee who just joined you straight from college as an adult, expect a lot from them, make sure that they have the hardware and software tools and leave them alone to do their jobs?
High expectations does something magical! The same employee comes in on their own on saturdays and sundays to try out something they have been thinking about. It stops being work for them and becomes something they take ownership for!
Do you praise them in meetings for even minor accomplishments but correct things they do wrong in private?
Do you tell them everyday that you are depending upon them to contribute great ideas to the company, give them time to try them out?
Then you have the right culture for innovation!
However, there are other things that go into this culture working correctly! You need to spend a lot of time hiring ONLY the right people! Make no mistake – Silicon Valley, India or Timbuktu, only 5- 10% of any population are really really good and suitable for innnovative companies. Do you look through 100 resumes and filter out that 5 to 10%? The wrong people can make your innovation train go off the rails, right from the beginning!
You are saying – I am this small company in Chennai – I am competing for talent with Infosys, Wipro and others. How do I get that 5 to 10% cream of the crop.
Guess what? I have done that! Spread your search to Tier 2, Tier 3, Tier4 colleges. Go to Bangalore, Delhi and Mumbai to hire. Simple science, really! If you are trying to hire the 5 – 10% of the best in a population, to increase your chances, you go to more populations. I hired two people from Delhi to come, work in Chennai. Did wonders for my employees. They learned how to help, interact with someone from another language, culture.
There is another reason how diversity helps your innovation. Men and Women think about the same problem differently. Punjabis think differently than South Indians. Assamese and Bengalis are different in thinking than Mumbaikars! All these differences are your real assets. Walk into facebook and Google, you will see employees that represent the United Nations. There is a reason to that madness! Innovation comes from thinking differently and people who solve the same problem in many different ways are your real assets, your keys to innovation!
If you encourage them, give them the broad direction, tools and step away to let them do their jobs, fail often but try different things nevertheless. Works in Silicon Valley, New York, Washington. Works even better in India, if you try it without skipping any of the ingredients.
You never realize how much the Indian work culture has borrowed all the wrong things from our British masters before us. Separate dining rooms for different levels of executives, the “Yes. Sir. No Sir” culture. This kind of thinking is more harmful to your goals than you think!
It can be changed. It all starts with a few companies that start doing it. I am sure there are many companies in India that already do it actively today and are seeing the results.
Culture is often pooh-poohed as something touchy-feely stuff and not suitable for a goal oriented, task oriented company. It is everything in a startup, especially one that wants to Innovate!