The point of this blog is to debunk the myth that innovation, especially as it applies to product development, can be highly planned out and successfully realized, merely by following a tidy set of rules that someone has read in one of the many trendy books now being written on ‘Design Thinking’. Too many recently minted MBAs and ill informed ‘innovation executives’ feel like they are, by reason of a course they’ve taken or a book they’ve read, uniquely positioned to be the champion of their company’s innovation culture and initiatives.
The above will not sound strange or offensive to those who’ve had the pleasure of spending some portion of their career in a highly innovative organization. Most of those I’ve spoken with realize that for innovation to flourish, certain elements need to be present. It’s somewhat analogous to a garden. For plants to thrive, you need to create the right conditions for growth. You need to ensure the soil is rich in minerals, there’s the right amount of moisture in the ground and that there’s a good supply of sunlight. When the conditions are right, step back and watch things grow. The point is, you can create the right conditions for growth but you cannot force something to grow when the conditions are sterile.
Colby Drive was a dusty, dowdy crescent rimmed with shapeless, colorless, 60’s and 70’s style concrete block industrial units lined up one after the other on a poorly paved, sidewalk-less, non-curbed, pothole laden street. None of the buildings on Colby Drive had any architectural significance. If anything, they were a testimony to an era of small thinking and thrift. They sure didn’t have any of the modern, bright, collaborative work spaces (and cool furniture) that seems to be a prerequisite for innovation today. Instead of the high-tech business park populated with preppy recent grads drinking their latte’s, it was the place for a variety of ordinary but highly skilled tradespeople and professionals, both old and young, who could, at low cost, have a space to experiment with their craft.
On this street were a variety of small, independently owned, businesses and shops. A place where designers, engineers, machinists, mold makers , injection molders, vacuum formers, PCB makers, assemblers, fastener and electronic component suppliers could easily set up, do their thing, and make a decent living for themselves. Over the last few years, I’ve tried to understand what made this location special. What made Colby Drive the place where many of the high tech companies in the Waterloo Region traveled to when they needed help in their development efforts? Why was it broadly known that “If you need something done, you go to Colby Drive”? I’m sure there are many reasons why this street was a key ingredient in the success of Waterloo as a tech hub (just as similar neighborhoods are in the Bay area, Cambridge, Victoria, Kanata and Markham) but for the sake of this article, I decided to list those that are important and clear to me.
What were some of the reasons why Colby Drive was a good place to work, experiment and innovate?
- Colby Drive was not a planned out, high tech business park. It was a cluster of informally arranged small businesses, linked not by swanky palm tree laden boulevards, but by personal relationships of mutual dependence. People and businesses needed each other to survive.
- It was inexpensive to operate on Colby Drive. Rents were low which allowed businesses to open, operate and experiment at a reasonable cost.
- It was easy and inexpensive to experiment. Access to people, expertise, materials and a wide variety of resources was just an industrial unit away. No need for expensive flights and couriers.
- Most of the businesses were local, independently owned and operated. They didn’t have to struggle with the burden and shackles of financial leverage and quarterly reporting.
- There was an inquisitiveness and a ‘hungriness’ on Colby Drive. All were interested in what they did each day. We wanted to work on interesting projects and we wanted to prove to ourselves and others that we could develop meaningful things that solved real problems. We never thought we had ‘arrived’; we were always striving for more.
- There was close proximity from one business to another. You could either get in your car, or even better, walk down the street and visit with many of the service providers who would be glad to chat with you about your specific problem. Problem solving was collaborative and in person.
- The experience levels and expertise were rich. The area was home to several great educational institutions, which continually turned out a flow of very gifted designers and engineers, but knowledge wasn’t limited to those with engineering degrees. The street was full of highly skilled trades people who often knew more about design and engineering than did those with a Bachelor of Science degree….and they were willing to share it.
- Things were informal and humility was evident. No fancy offices or reception areas to wait in. There was nothing impressive about the physical surroundings. All people seemed to care about was doing the best with their trade. Just knock on the garage door and let yourself in.
- Problem solving was almost instantaneous. You could sit in a vendor’s office and brainstorm with the very person who would be designing, molding or machining your part.
Regardless of the outward appearance of Colby Drive, behind those drab, grey walls was a garden with rich dark soil, full of nutrients that nourished inquisitive and creative minds. As with a garden, the outcome is not always predictable but that’s the benefit and essence of innovation.
It’s not the beauty of the business park, the impressiveness of its architecture or the thoughtfulness of the interior spaces that causes innovation to thrive. Innovation blooms when a variety of people, people with diverse backgrounds, who think differently from one another (both right and left brain) have an opportunity to work together, apply their skill sets, passions and interests in a respectful, encouraging and collaborative environment. Colby Drive was just that.