We recently returned from an innovation tour of the famous Silicon Valley last week and mind blowing does not do it justice. The Bay Area covering San Francisco and its surrounds is arguably the innovation heart of the world. It did not let us down, exhilarating insights into Virtual Reality (VR), Machine Learning (ML), Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the emerging Mixed Reality (MR) trends had us intrigued from day one.
At wattsnext we pride ourselves on bringing global learning across Human Resources and business practices to our clients. We travel the world learning from leading growth companies and sectors.

It was impossible to turn down the chance to visit the global tech leaders at companies like Google, Tesla, Twitter, AirBnB, Thumbtack, Box, Autodesk and Go Daddy. We participated in workshops in design thinking methodologies at IDEO and Singularity University and met with a number of leading Venture Capital funds in the Bay Area to see what they look for in their investments.

Humbled by the generosity of some of the world’s leading executives to share, we soaked up information like first year university students on international scholarships.

This was a learning experience like no other.

Without fail one familiar topic entered every conversation. To our surprise it wasn’t tech related, it was the international buzz word…..culture!!

In arguably the world’s toughest geographical region for talent, culture remained King!

My top five culture lessons from the Bay Area:

1. Drinking the Kool-Aide : A figure of speech commonly used in San Francisco is ‘we drink the kool-aide’. It means accepting an idea or preference due to popularity, peer pressure or persuasion. It refers to employees being ‘on the bus’ or completely immersed in the company’s Vision, Mission and Values. 100% on board and proud to be part of the journey! I wish you could buy it by the litre.  I must admit it is refreshing to see these advanced, forward thinking companies embracing what we believe at wattsnext is the most powerful tool in the management tool kit (the company’s vision, mission and values)

2. Surface Culture: the glamour of breakfast, lunch and dinner being provided amounts to ping pong and pool tables. Games rooms, sleep pods, flexible hours, unlimited snacks, scooters, casual dress and 24-hour bar are expected. The benchmark is extremely high, but companies can no longer diversify themselves with their surface culture. Somewhat gimmicky maybe? But shiny things will always be attractive!

3. Diversity: This is not necessarily in regards to male and females although it was refreshing to see the extent some businesses were going to balance gender bias and push equal pay. Leading companies were going out of their way to hire individuals with different skills, background and experience. Gone are the days of hiring hundreds of engineering graduates from Stanford. By celebrating diversity and new perspectives teams become collectively more powerful.

4. Deliberate collaboration: Make your team interact. Sounds simple, but seeing Google engineer a five-minute line for meals and encouraging discussion between colleagues takes this to new levels. IDEO have offices on the wharf overlooking the Oakland bridge and have designed a space overlooking the wharf where you have to wait at a set of traffic lights to go to the bathroom. Why? To encourage interaction of course, there are even questions that need solving in the toilets themselves!

5. Secret Sauce: The Bay Area companies all talk about it and the employees know what it is. The employees are seriously proud of their company’s secret sauce. They believe in it and love broadcasting what it is to the world. Silicon Valley’s CEOs addressed their teams weekly face to face and most encouraged Q&A interactive open discussion. The companies ‘secret sauce’ was openly discussed by our hosts. Never did they hide their unique selling proposition or their point of difference. Australian companies should teach their employees about their secret sauce or maybe just decide what it is!

It is somewhat ironic that some of the most successful and innovative companies the world has seen hold culture in such high regard.

Or is it?

It is expensive to turn staff over, do you do enough to hang on to yours?

Businesses in Australia instinctively know culture is important. But do they focus on defining and sustaining their culture or get distracted by rapidly evolving technology?

Author: Ben Watts
Ben is a veteran in the HR space- a forward-thinking leader specialising in functional business structures and people performance techniques. With twenty years’ experience managing large ASX listed corporates across multiple industries, Ben adds depth and expertise to our clients' strategy solutions, genuinely providing a commercial result for their investment.