Today's Reading

Wolfe observed that "At Intel everyone—Noyce included—was expected to attend sessions on 'the Intel Culture.'" The culture was drilled into new employees by Andy Grove (who would go on to become the company's CEO and a famous cultural innovator). Grove would ask, "How would you sum up the Intel approach?" Someone might answer, "At Intel you don't wait for someone else to do it. You take the ball yourself and run with it." Grove would reply, "Wrong. At Intel you take the ball yourself and you let the air out and you fold the ball up and put it in your pocket. Then you take another ball and run with it and when you've crossed the goal you take the second ball out of your pocket and reinflate it and score twelve points instead of six."

This atmosphere allowed ideas to prosper; if Silicon Valley is about anything, it's about the primacy of the idea. Breakthrough ideas have traditionally been difficult to manage for two reasons: 1) innovative ideas fail far more than they succeed, and 2) innovative ideas are always controversial before they succeed. If everyone could instantly understand them, they wouldn't be innovative.

Imagine a culture of strict accountability that punishes failure—a very common culture back east, where executives strove to maintain their status, and failure was to be avoided at all costs. Now consider an idea that has a 90 percent chance of failing, but that would pay off at 1,000 to 1. Despite it being an extraordinarily good bet, the company that punishes failure will never fund it.

Hierarchies are good at weeding out obviously bad ideas. By the time an idea makes it all the way up the chain, it will have been compared to all the other ideas in the system, with the obviously good ideas ranked at the top. This seems like common sense. The problem is that obviously good ideas are not truly innovative, and truly innovative ideas often look like very bad ideas when they're introduced. Western Union famously passed on the opportunity to buy Alexander Graham Bell's patents and technology for the telephone. At the time, phone calls were extremely noisy and easy to misinterpret, and they couldn't span long distances, and Western Union knew from its telegram business that profitable communication depended on accuracy and widespread reach. And Wikipedia was considered a joke when it started. How could something written by a crowd replace the work of the world's top scholars? Today it is so much more comprehensive than anything that came before it that it's widely
considered the only encyclopedia.

The Intel culture, by elevating the individual and giving breakthrough ideas a chance, inaugurated a better way to do business. My business partner Marc Andreessen wrote an essay a few years ago called "Software Is Eating the World." He described how technology has spread beyond the technology industry to take over every traditional business, from bookstores to taxi fleets to hotels. Existing companies have been forced to adopt aspects of Noyce's culture or else expose themselves to an onslaught of existential threats. We've seen General Motors adopt stock options as it moved into autonomous vehicles by buying Cruise Automation, and Walmart employ a similar approach with its purchase of Jet.com.

Since tech became a consumer phenomenon, thousands of non-tech people have come up with great ideas that use technology. But if their startups outsource their engineering, they almost always fail. Why? It turns out that it's easy to build an app or a website that meets the specification of some initial idea, but far more difficult to build something that will scale, evolve, handle edge cases gracefully, etc. A great engineer will only invest the time and effort to do all those things, to build a product that will grow with the company, if she has ownership in the company—literally as well as figuratively. Bob Noyce understood that, created the culture to support it, and changed the world.


What Makes a Culture Work?

Culture clearly has a powerful effect. So how do you shape it, how do you set it deep in people's minds, and how do you fix it when it goes wrong?

These questions led me to larger questions and a wider frame of reference. How does culture work in a variety of different contexts? What makes it last for more than a few years?

I have long been interested in history, and particularly in how people behaved differently from what I would have expected, given the circumstances they were born into. For instance, I would never have expected that a man who was born into slavery and who would one day free the slaves of Haiti would own slaves himself along the way—but he did. Understanding how historical cultures shaped people's views led me to begin considering what they had to do to change themselves and their culture. Grasping that seemed to be the key to creating the kind of culture that I wanted.
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