This is a guest post by Rafael Lemaitre, Partner at Sia Partners, as previously published here.

We recently took a team of innovators from one UAE Government entity, who participated in the internal innovation acceleration program we run in the GCC, on a discovery trip to Silicon Valley and San Francisco.

There we had the opportunity to visit a wide variety of companies (i.e. Google, SAP, Palantir, Udacity, Plug and Play, Silicon Foundries, Silicon Valley Bank, Quid, Stanford, San Francisco City Hall, Danish Innovation Center, Facebook). The original objective of this trip was to get our innovators exposed to the highly dynamic innovation environment found in that part of the world.

However, the results were much more than that, as it proved to be a highly transformative experience that changed the way participants understand how “innovation works” and which challenged all their assumptions.

Summarizing this experience in a short blog post is very difficult; nevertheless, it is worth to abstract the key lessons learned.

Silicon Valley represents a unique innovation ecosystem, with multiple elements which make it arguably the world’s most innovative cluster and the reference point of innovation worldwide (although for how long it is yet to be seen). Few numbers strengthen this perception. Silicon Valley (together with the entire Bay Area) capture the largest concentration of high-tech companies (and jobs) in the USA. The highest average high-tech salaries, 30% of the world’s venture capital, 15,000 startups (of which 200 have valuations over USD 500 M), plus the majority of the all big tech giants.

Below we summarize the 5 key take-aways our group of innovators have gained, and how these lessons learned could be extrapolated to other GCC organizations:

(1) The famous Google Culture is much more than nice perks and a cool campus

Google’s famous work environment requires almost no introduction. Everyone may know about Google’s nice perks, from its cool campus to a 20% rule that allows employees to work on their own projects pursuing new bold ideas. But how can such a culture be created?

First and foremost, you don’t talk about an innovation culture within Google. Innovation is a given in the organization.

Second, you can follow this potential “recipe”:

  • you have to hire the best talent: Google’s recruitment process, besides being very challenging, is truly unbiased (thanks to a mechanism composed by hiring managers and committees who do not meet any candidates, which bullet proofs the process) getting to select the best applicants.
  • you need to remove the obstacles to allow employees to focus on what they do best. All those perks at Google are there for a reason, bikes are there to increase mobility, free food to increase production, open spaces to foster bottom-up ideas, free time to pursue new projects, internal incubators to retain intrapreneurs, etc.
  • you need to give the teams big challenges and lot of freedom: There is nothing better to motivate a team than having to crack a big challenge with bold and big ideas, and while doing so, having the freedom to explore, experiment and fail. At Google transparency and curiosity are key behaviors.
  • you need to remove the fear of taking risk: In order to foster innovation, and allow the teams to pursue those big ideas, you need to give them the room to fail fast and to learn from their mistakes.

(2) The Power of the Network

There is a true open spirit in the entire Bay Area, based on collaboration, and the underlying reason is that all the members of this business ecosystem understand the power of a network. People are not meetings or taking the time to sit with others because they immediately see they can benefit out of it. They do so because they know that that is the way of working; they know that later on down the road (even if it means in few years’ time), those connections they once met, could pay off. This attitude makes the business environment incredible open and is one of the true differentiating factors of the Silicon Valley ecosystem when compared with other highly innovative regions in the world, which operate as closer environments.

(3) There is not an Innovation culture or such a thing as an Innovation Strategy

From all the organizations that we visited, we did not find a single one that has an innovation strategy or specific efforts to create an innovation culture. They have moved from considering Innovation as a standalone concept, to having it as a fundamental part of their DNA. Organizations are not working on specific innovation projects, as innovation is already a core component of their strategy; thus, by default all their initiatives are innovative in nature.

(4) AI is the hype…Data is the reality check…Augmented Intelligence is the logical step

In all our visits, from Stanford to Palantir, we kept hearing what we already had in mind, that Artificial intelligence is the next big thing. But in all of those visits we had a good reality check. First and foremost, we realize that it is not just about AI, it is about having reliable data. Organizations that are embracing AI have already worked on having clear data collection processes, as well as guaranteeing the data’s accuracy and reliability. For our innovators this came as an eye opener, before actually thinking on embarking into an AI implementation, they realized they need to focus on getting their house in order (i.e. auditing, assessing, cleaning, maintaining, and filing the gaps of their data). Second, we found skepticism of a vision where AI takes an omnipresent role acting as the silver bullet on its own, we found a common view among multiple experts, that human computer interaction in an augmented intelligence is the next logical step.

(5) You can’t keep ignoring Startups

While the number of startups in the valley is incredibly high (more than 15,000 fueled by the large availability of venture capital as well as different enabling platforms (i.e. incubators, accelerators, etc.), the current dynamics of large corporations that have realized they can’t keep ignoring startups, is even more impressive. These large companies have established either innovation centers (e.g. Volkswagen alone has a team of 200 engineers, GM around 100, established in SV) or corporate outposts in one of the multiple platforms like the high-end Silicon Foundry or the well-known Plug and Play. All these companies have acknowledged that the next big thing that could disrupt their businesses may come out from a start-up, and they have made the necessary steps to be closer to them, scouting the market and either making early stage investments in order to secure the technology, or gaining competitive information that will allow them to prepare for what is coming.

While a very diverse set, these 5 lessons learned show not only interesting characteristics of the Silicon Valley ecosystem but also the mind-set that is found in its members.

Are you interested in experiencing innovation in Silicon Valley, and bring back this Silicon Valley mindset to your business? This fall, Stefan Lindegaard is again hosting a Silicon Valley Fast Track. More info via