Where's Your Garage?

Where's Your Garage?

Every inventor needs a place to work. It could be a garage, of course, or an attic. Or today, even a cubicle.

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, 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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