October 2013 | 

Silicon Valley Insider: Five Tips to Boost Innovation


“There comes a moment in your career — for me it is after 30-plus years of experience — when you realize how difficult it is to stay updated. And a manager can only be successful if she or he is up to date,” says European-based CEO Elizabeth Trallero. “Technology especially is moving so quickly. The only way to step back and ask yourself if what you are doing still fits in this moment is to really get away from your routine. I went to Silicon Valley with the Wharton Fellows to get out of operational and tactical thinking, update my knowledge, and rethink my mental models.”

The exclusive group of 50 Fellows met in July with some of the world’s most innovative companies for three days of site visits with senior executives, panel discussions, and high level networking. CEO Giovanni Feroce recalls, “The access and level of insights was unprecedented. I saw what the future looks like. With our company in hypergrowth, we have to be continuously developing, and as part of the Wharton Fellows Program, I can see that at work.”

As the Fellows met at the offices of Facebook, Samsung, and Cisco (to name a few), they learned how these companies repeatedly create new solutions for themselves and their customers. At Google, they spoke with senior executives about the company’s famous Nine Principles of Innovation. The Fellows found that some of the principles resonated more powerfully than others, and they had some unique ideas as they started to experiment with some of them in their own companies. Here are their key takeaways:

  1. Focus on your customers. For Robert Luna, a CEO in financial services, the message was that you need to become a trusted advisor to your clients. “Although the companies we visited were in technology, that message translates to other industries and it really resonated with me. It’s very important to us in financial services. With the speed and proliferation of information, we are all fighting against commoditization. I’m now working to implement technology in our business so we can learn more about our clients and provide more personal service. It’s a way to scale up and keep a high level of personal service.”
  2. Bigger isn’t always better. Luna took away another lesson — one that took him by surprise. “At Facebook and Google, they look for bold transformational change. The goal is to get much better, not slightly better. But doing that, as they explained at Cisco, can be difficult when you’re a very large company. One of the questions we asked was, ‘What technologies can we implement before our competitors?’ I realized that being a small firm allows us to be more nimble. We were often looking to larger companies in our industry as examples, but it can be easier for us to be the first mover. Our size is a key advantage that we need to embrace. This was a real wake-up call.”
  3. Ideas come from everywhere. Trallero says, “The Fellows is an amazing group of people from different cultures, experiences, and expertise. Our conversations were fascinating; it is sharing and networking at a very high level. My management circle in Spain is a small one, and it sometimes is hard to find someone who understands my challenges. In the Fellows program, there is a sort of complicity. These were people I did not know the day before, but we understood each other. I learned as much from them as I did from the site visits.”
  4. Innovation, not instant perfection. For Dr. Eric Bernstein, a medical doctor with a web-based start-up, an important insight came from Facebook. “In my company, the web developer wants everything to be perfect before it goes out. I saw a poster at Facebook that read, ‘Done is better than perfect.’ They talked about this at Google too. That really applies to me. You need to get your product out there. Don’t wait for it to be perfect. You can continue to work on it and learn from your mistakes. When I got back from the program, I told my team, ‘If they’re getting it out before it’s perfect, we can do the same.’”
  5. It’s really about leadership. Wharton professor Jerry Wind, the Fellows’ faculty director, explains, “In Silicon Valley, we saw first-hand that tech is changing dramatically, and enabling many other changes. But the real story isn’t about technology — it’s about the ability of management to adapt the technology to transform the company. The story is about leading a culture where creativity and innovation thrive.”

Wind continues, “Anyone can read about the culture at Google. You can read about what they’re doing that works, and what’s new. You can memorize their nine principles of innovation. But culture is something you need to experience. If you want to learn what makes them work, you go there. You talk with the executives who are making it happen.”

The Next Big Thing 2014

For 2014, Program Director David Heckman and Faculty Director and Professor Jerry Wind plan to continue the Wharton Fellows’ Next Big Thing with access to and insights from the world’s most innovative companies in three locations. The New York Master Class (February) will include visits to best-of-breed organizations from advertising, art, media, entertainment, fashion, retail, technology, real estate, financial services, and government. In Seattle (May), Fellows will meet with senior executives at Boeing, Microsoft, Amazon, Nordstrom, Costco, and Starbucks. And in Tel Aviv, Israel (August), visits to incubators, VCs, and start-ups will be balanced with well-established multinational companies with a foot print in Israel and global Israeli companies with a reputation for sustaining cutting-edge innovation.