There’s a story that someone once asked Bill Gates where his greatest competition was. The expectation was that he would mention another major high tech company competing for the same business. Instead, Gates said he was more worried about two guys in a garage; quite the antithesis of the presumed response. Why should he be concerned with two guys in a garage?
Because there are people like John Nottingham and John Spirk, who founded their namesake company in 1972, in a garage (several years before Microsoft was born). After graduating from the Cleveland Institute of Art, they declined offers from well-respected and established companies to instead strike out on their own and form their namesake company. Their objective was to design products using a different business model. Instead of creating products and then trying to sell them to other companies or customers; they invited companies to bring their product predicaments to the Nottingham Spirk Innovation Center. They then engineer solutions for these companies and receive payment in the form of royalties on sales, or a flat rate up front.
Today they’ve moved from the garage to a converted church building in Cleveland, Ohio, where with a small team of 70 people, they’ve amassed over 900 patents to their credit. This includes repackaging Purell hand sanitizer, developing the Twist and Pour paint can for Sherwin Williams, developing Dirt Devil products, Scott’s Snap Lawn Spreader, the Unilever Axe Bullet, Swiffer SweepVac, and the Crest Spinbrush.
One obvious question is why companies like these weren’t able to solve their product dilemmas internally. My guess is that they needed an external perspective and focus; literally, someone to help them think outside their corporate box or mindset. They needed to be able to think like they were in the garage by starting from the beginning and taking a fresh and different approach.
Think about it. As leaders, how many times have we had a product or process dilemma where we needed a simple, but elegant solution? We come at it from every angle we can think of. We brainstorm, use mindmaps, and other elaborate problem solving techniques. But when we casually mention the issue to someone totally unconnected to our organization, they quickly come up with a new perspective on how to solve it. Sometimes their suggestion is so simple that we initially dismiss it, because after all they don’t understand the complexities, rules and processes of what we do. But in reality, the customer needs uncomplicated answers, not encumbered by the back office complexity of how we got there.
Sometimes we find a need for this in our personal lives. How many times have you been thinking though a major decision, or wondering how to handle a situation. You labored with it, until one day you mentioned it to a friend, loved one, coach or even a total stranger. Maybe they only asked you one question, but it was so perceptive and insightful that almost instantly, you had the answer. You knew what to do.
The Magic of a Garage
So back to the two guys in a garage. There’s a slew of companies that started out in the proverbial garage like Amazon, Disney, Apple, Hewlitt Packard, Google and Harley Davidson. A couple of guys and gals, slogging through a problem that no one else perceived as a problem or took the time to resolve. They took risks because at that point they had nothing, so there was nothing to lose. They had few predispositions as to how their project should operate because it had never been done before. There was no bureaucracy or lengthy decision making process impinging on their activity. The boundaries of imagination were wide, and the possibilities for development and integration of technology were unlimited.
Sometimes, in the midst of all the business challenges and demands on our time, we need to find time to become two guys in a garage. Find that spot where we can innovate, concentrate, create, and view situations from the perspective of a learner to come up with an answer. Or find a few people on our team who can work on the issues without being encumbered with an expected solution; who can innovate, inquire, and integrate to arrive at the best answer. So who’s in your garage?
Read the Forbes article for more information on the Nottingham Spirk Innovation Center
Photo courtesy of IStockphoto
Imagine yourself escaping from the daily pressure of decisions to be made, demands on your time, and disruptions to your schedule. You find a quiet oasis, where the atmosphere is suited for relaxation, reflection and rejuvenation. It is carefully designed to provide just the right amount of stimuli to enhance your productivity and creativity. You’re able to think through problems, strategize, and plan your next steps. This is your thinking spot; the environment where you’re optimally suited to work through the challenges in your life and work.
While the thought of periodically removing oneself from the hub of activity is scary to some people, some of the most successful leaders have made a habit of frequenting a thinking spot.
- Harry Frampton, executive chairman of East West Partners, a property developer, manager and brokerage in Avon, Colorado has a vacation home in Hawaii where he and his wife spend about 12 weeks each year. His visits there during the 2009 recession helped him get away from overwhelming problems and think through which projects to put on hold, and which ones to move forward on.
- Martin Puris, an advertising executive and owner of Puris and Partners has a vacation home in Long Island’s Hamptons where he and his wife spend most weekends. There he has some of his “best creative thoughts”, and can think “uncluttered and focused”.
- Dan Cathy, president of Chick-fil-A, a fast food restaurant chain headquartered in the Atlanta area has a “thinking schedule” that helps him to prioritize intentional thinking. He blocks out a half a day every two weeks, a whole day each month, and two or three days each year to make sure he blocks out distractions and keeps focused on the primary things in life.
- John Maxwell, internationally known leadership guru and author has a “thinking chair” in his office. He brings a list of issues to think through while he sits in the chair and spends the necessary time to gain clarity on them.
Effective leaders understand and embrace their thinking spot. They plan time to think that includes:
- Reflecting on what did and didn’t work in the past.
- Focusing on the present challenges.
- Planning for the future.
- Creating new solutions.
Their thinking time may include different forms of solitude. Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, describes Darwin Smith, the unassuming but successful CEO of Kimberly Clark for 20 years, as spending his vacation time on his farm in Wisconsin, digging holes and moving rocks on his backhoe. While this may have looked totally unrelated to his leadership role, it no doubt provided the quiet thought time needed for the demands of his position.
Steve Wozniak co-founder of Apple designed the first personal computer working alone. He met with others periodically to discuss the technology and possibilities, but he largely toiled long hours by himself, thinking through the process necessary to reach his goal.
Find Your Spot
So where do you get your inspiration? Where is the spot that stimulates your thinking? Have you carefully protected that environment to ensure that it’s conducive to your needs? How often and for how long do you frequent it? What has it produced for you in the past? Do you run from it or to it? In other words are you comfortable sitting in quietness or do you need high activity and stimulation around you? Does the thought of sitting still make you nervous? Are you constantly thinking of all the other things you can do instead of being there?
My preferred style is to spend quiet time in the early morning in meditation and prayer. I focus on what I need to accomplish for the day, engage in positive self-talk, reflect on my priorities, and thank God for His goodness. Ideally, if the weather and time permits, I’ll take a walk, alone with the unlimited expanse of nature. Sometimes I get great ideas during this process, and at other times mental breakthroughs will come later in the day, but I know it’s a product of that time alone.
The key is to understand the environment where you’re most productive, and replicate that on a regular basis. In your gut, you know when you do your best thinking. You know the right atmosphere for you to generate ideas, work through problems, develop your action plans, and learn new information. You know where you get your energy, ideas, and motivation; your time of fruitfulness where seeds of ideas take root, are carefully formed and watered over time until they finally blossom. Make it a priority to find and frequent that thinking spot.
Copyright 2014 Priscilla Archangel
Steve Wozniak reference from iWoz: Computer Geek to Cult Icon: How I Invented the Personal Computer, Co-Founded Apple, and Had Fun Doing It by Stephen Wozniak with Gina Smith, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. New York, NY, 2006.
John Maxwell reference from Success 101: What Every Leader Needs to Know, Thomas Nelson, Nashville, TN, 2008.
Picture from IStockPhoto
New Ideas, New Work
Recently, while perusing Forbes Magazine’s list of the top 30 Under 30 people in 15 different industries, I was struck by how many of them were listed as “founder” of a company. In industries such as Media, Technology, Energy and Industry, Food and Drink, Education, and Social Entrepreneurship, more than half the individuals held this title. In Sports, Music, Hollywood Entertainment, Art and Style, independent individual contributors comprised the majority of the list.
Many in this millennial group of 30 Under 30 have rejected the traditional notion of graduating from college and finding jobs. Instead they have used the campus environment to facilitate networking to create their own jobs. They have avoided the conventional corporate environments in favor of unconventional workspaces and work relationships, like living and working in the same space to increase productivity and connectivity. They have pushed back on the established methodologies of getting things done, and created new pathways to purchase art online and process financial transactions.
Their advantage obviously is that they aren’t entrenched in a “this is how you do it” mindset. Their educational process and developmental upbringing likely placed greater emphasis on creativity instead of conformity. Research shows that millennials as a group, are less interested in considering a career in business. According to an article by Shama Kabani in the December 2013 issue of Forbes, millennials are projected to comprise the majority of the workforce by 2025, however data from Bentley University’s study on the preparedness of college students to move into the workplace shows that:
- 6 in 10 students say they are NOT considering a career in business, and 48% said they have NOT been encouraged to do so.
- 59% of business decision makers and 62% of higher education influentials give recent college graduates a C grade or lower for preparedness in their first jobs.
- 68% of corporate recruiters say that it is difficult for their organizations to manage millennials.
- 74% of non millennials agree that millennials offer different skills and work styles that add value to the workplace.
- 74% agree that businesses must partner with colleges and universities to provide business curriculums that properly prepare students for the workforce.
This data, and the accomplishments of the 30 Under 30 speak loudly about how current organizations must adapt to and embrace the future generation both as employees and as customers, to be able to leverage their ideas and intellect to solve problems, and effectively compete in the marketplace.
A New Model
Many companies still operate based on the old model of experience taking priority over innovation at the individual employee level. Employees with greater technical, policy or process knowledge, and therefore experience in a particular area, teach the younger people how the organization works. Such companies may externally broadcast their innovative products and methodologies, but internally they muffle creativity at the expense of familiarity. Instead they need to place innovation and creativity of the culture and work style on par with their innovative products and services. Those who fail to adapt and become more flexible will pay the price of failing to keep pace with the speed of technology and change.
A glaring example of this is Eastman Kodak, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection two years ago in January 2012, after more than a decade of falling sales and stock prices. Kodak, a name long synonymous with photography, didn’t go bankrupt because people stopped taking pictures, but because they couldn’t adapt to the new way pictures were being taken. People started using their smart phones to capture, send and store pictures electronically, instead of solely using traditional cameras and hard copy prints. Twenty months later, Kodak has emerged from their restructuring transformed into a technology company focused on imaging for business, in a way that will hopefully produce better corporate results.
Preparing for the future
So what about these 30 Under 30? Instead of just talking about new ways of doing things, they take new ideas and develop them into marketable strategies, trends and entrepreneurial ventures.
For example, Carter Cleveland (#1 in the Art and Style category) founded Artsy as a student at Princeton when he realized that there was no quick and easy way online to find art for his dorm room walls. His website now provides more than 85,000 works of art from 1,800 museums, galleries and foundations. Most of it is for sale and he also recommends artists to users. (This is an idea I’m sure I could have thought of, but would I have done anything about it?)
So how are you leveraging innovation, creativity and technology in your team or organization to capture the next NEW idea or process? How are you finding new and different ways to meet customers’ needs? Are you developing intrapreneurs (in all demographic groups) who will keep your team fresh, or are you attracting entrepreneurs who will collaborate on new ways to accomplish organizational objectives? Whatever your strategy, recognize the value of new ideas and build a culture that embraces the new world of work for millennials.
Photo from iStockphoto
Copyright 2014 Priscilla Archangel