(This is a reprint of a post from 2015.)
I attended a national conference in 2015 and had the great pleasure of hearing Victor Hwang speak. At the time he was CEO of T2 Venture Creation, a Silicon Valley firm that builds startup companies and designs the ecosystems that foster entrepreneurial innovation. He’s also the author or co-author of several books, including The Rainforest: The Secret to Building the Next Silicon Valley. He writes about what makes Silicon Valley what it is – not a place, but rather a state of mind. The good news, Hwang tells us, is that states of mind are free; you can create one in the company where you work.
Hwang uses the metaphor of the rainforest to talk about innovation and creativity, and he starts by comparing it to the plantation, where crops are raised like a business. On the plantation, you plant useful crops in large scale for harvest and consumption – and profit. Like a business, you have to be able to predict outcomes and control everything that happens. If a weed sprouts up, your mission is clear: pluck it or kill it. There is no room for weeds in the midst of your crop.
Now let’s switch to the rainforest, which the dictionary defines as “a luxuriant, dense forest rich in biodiversity.” Can you point out the weeds in a rainforest? Frankly, it’s all weeds. You can’t predict what will grow or how high it will grow in the rainforest – and no one is trying to.
Plantations are neat and precise, with clear lines of ownership and management; rainforests are chaotic, and no one is in charge. Great innovation seldom comes out of a business structured like a plantation; it’s hard to get creative ideas past the rules, policies, structure and management. Creativity thrives in chaos, where no one knows the outcomes in advance and where they’re open to anything that might happen.
If you’re trying to push yourself or your company into a more creative space, here are some guiding rules of the rainforest (and the weeds who grow there.)
- Break rules and dream – don’t be limited by what you know, what you think is possible, or what you can afford.
- Open doors and listen – take ideas from everyone and everywhere they appear; don’t discount a source of inspiration that might be unconventional or unrelated to your core business.
- Trust first – act as though you already have a relationship with this new partner, vendor or customer. Trusting may occasionally cause you to be cheated or hurt, but most of the time, it will open new possibilities and create deep and lasting connections.
- Seek fairness, not advantage – how could you structure a deal or employment so that both parties have equal potential and equal status? What might happen if you made concessions to build trust?
- Experiment and iterate together – accept that your first draft won’t be perfect. Ask your customers what they liked and didn’t like, and then make changes based on their input.
- Err, fail, persist – Turn failure into a learning tool. Show others that making mistakes is not the end of the world. Be curious about what did happen instead of being ashamed of what didn’t happen.
- Pay it forward – give back some of what you learn and what you earn. Help others who are following behind you – even if they may become your competitors someday. Success isn’t a zero-sum game; every person who enters the market has the potential to expand the market.
How did you – or your company – score? Don’t feel bad if you feel more like a farmer than a weed; we need farmers, too. Hwang says that every product or service has to move from the rainforest to the plantation to grow and serve its markets. Your iPhone 10 may have been conceived and designed in the rainforest, but it’s produced with mechanical precision on the plantation. Victor Hwang smiles when he says that you don’t want iPhone production line workers getting creative – you want to get what you expect when you open the box.
You can’t grow a rainforest overnight; that doesn’t happen in nature either. But you can hire, help and stop hassling the weeds you know. Let them experiment, even if it means failing occasionally. Be open to outcomes you can’t control or predict. Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, put it best: “Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.”