Where's Your Garage?

It's probably not the motor oil fumes or the pitter-patter of mice feet that makes garages such hotbeds of innovation. But every inventor needs a place to work. Is your organization providing that?

We recently heard that YouTube.com, the video share site, was purchased for more than $US1.65 billion. Not bad for a venture that was developed by two men (and helped by a third) in a garage. Coincidently the video venture was purchased by another company that had also spent time in a garage - Google. Sergei Brin and Larry Page, co-founders of the that start-up company, had rented a garage in a suburban house in Mountain View, California, while they worked on their search engine. Two decades earlier, two Steves (Jobs and Wozniak) also did garage time when they were building an early version of the Apple Computer. And the granddaddy Silicon Valley company of them all, Hewlett Packard, began its life in a garage.

So what is it about garages that incubate businesses so well? Is it the aroma of gasoline mixed with oil, or the scent of newly mowed grass still sticking to the stored mower? Or is it a steady tracking of field mice in and out of the haunt that bring new ideas? Likely none of the above has any affect on business. What the garage symbolizes, however, is something more powerful: a commitment of people to their ideas, either in singles, twos or threes. The garage then becomes not simply a repository of ideas, but an active workshop where ideas are applied to the marketplace (see The Economist, October 5, 2006).

Garage as Innovation Tool. Awhile back, former HP CEO Carly Fiorina was featured in an HP television commercial in front of the original garage where Bill Hewlett and David Packard built their first oscilloscope in the late 1930s. The association between Fiorina and the garage was meant to demonstrate visually that HP was still an innovative company. And, despite the boardroom spying scandal, the company has developed new products that customers want. The slogan for the company is simple and to the point: "Invent".

Every business should encourage a degree of innovation. And in fact, most companies like to boast of their innovative prowess, but like many companies, they confine innovation to research and development. That is, they look for new ideas from people charged with coming up with new ideas. While that's not a bad policy, it does tell everyone else in the company that innovation is not something they should worry about. That's too bad because good ideas can come from anywhere and anyplace and, of course, anyone. The challenge is to capture them and seek to capitalize on them. And the garage is a good place to start.

Build your own garage. Every inventor needs a place to work. It could be a garage, of course, or an attic. Or today, even a cubicle. Pierre Omidyar and Meg Whitman did just fine in their cubicles as they built eBay into a viable business. Speaking metaphorically, anyone can create a space where they can go and focus on their ideas. The space may be physical, such as an empty conference room or a break room. But ideas do not always come in predictable patterns, so it is wise to occupy a metaphysical garage . . . carry a notepad or digital device for taking notes. The point is to focus your energy on thinking creatively about your business. What occurs may be an idea for a breakthrough product, or it may be a simple improvement that saves customers time and money. Good ideas do not need to be blockbuster; they simply need to be workable.

Allow risk in your garage. Innovation cannot take hold unless people have the freedom to pursue it. Motorola, under the direction of Ed Zander, has made innovation a priority as it strives for what it calls, "seamless mobility", that is, flexible technologies that permit users to access e-mail, media, software and data wherever they may be. To make that vision a reality, Zander encourages risk-taking among functions, departments and employees. To ensure that such a mindset sticks, Zander preaches it; and the new Motorola culture focuses on developing people skills, along with technical competencies (see The Economist, October 5, 2006).

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Invite your boss into the garage. After you have a solid concept for your idea, you will have to share it with others, including your boss. When you are ready then, you will need the physical space. Conference rooms, themed as energy rooms that reflect the boldness of the idea, are ideal havens. Use the room as an opportunity to pitch your idea. Dress the walls with symbolic images, perhaps customers or even flow charts or diagrams. Use props that underscore the power of your ideas. While you are building your garage, be certain that you invite colleagues to participate. The first step in turning idea into application is to get others on board to help develop it, but more importantly, to believe in your idea as a viable concept.

Bring your customer into the garage. Customers can be your allies in innovation. While many satisfied customers will attest they like your product or service as is, they may be receptive to new concepts. Michael Schrage, author and co-director of MIT's Media Lab's e Market Initiative, describes how Cisco rolled out a new application but purposely left it unfinished; its IT customers completed the network application to their individual specifications. One Cisco executive remarked to a group of CIOs who had participated in the venture: "Several of you have become true partners in design with us." Customers are essential to the innovation; they are the ones who will not only use your new application but pay for it.

Take Care of Business Too. While innovation powers the spirit of enterprise, too much innovation, or rather too much focus on innovation, is not healthy. You still need people to mind the store. You still need managers to administrate and to focus on the details of operations to ensure that you fulfil your customer promise, be it a product or service. Operational focus is essential to execution and if too many folks are off pursuing their own blue-sky projects, no one is back in the shop.

At the same time, innovation is not the purview of the chosen few. It can belong to anyone and everyone who has a better idea for process or a product, or a new way to serve the customer. Such ideas will not put the company in the inventor's hall of fame but they will ensure that the business maintains an external focus on what's going on outside the four walls of the company. And that may be a valuable innovation in itself. The adage that circumstance is the mother of invention works when people pay attention to what is happening in the market place, either with competitors or customers. Keeping antennae up is essential to maintaining an edge that enables people to feel free to bring up new ideas as well as focus on taking care of business. And that is not simply a garage venture, it is an enterprise-wide commitment.

John Baldoni is a leadership communications consultant who works with Fortune 500 companies as well as non-profits. He is a frequent keynote and workshop speaker as well as the author of six books on leadership

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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