Serious chefs seek experience in French gastronomy to establish a culinary foundation of excellence, regardless of their genre aspirations.   Jamaica has created a culture of winning the fastest races in the world, despite a small island population of 2.8 million people.  Both examples have achieved iconic “thing” status that carries an implicit value commanding a premium.  Said another, less technical, way:  People identify value in the identity.

What’s Seattle’s “thing”?  What comes to mind when you think of Seattle?  

Emerald City Immersion 

Over the last five months, I’ve been on a mission to fill-in that blank. The conversations have taken me on a fascinating journey of learning and discovery about this city that I’ve called home for nearly 15 years. The result? An insightful case study of some of the world’s leading organizations. I learned from people at Seattle-based organizations that…

…you’ve heard of:  

  

 ….you MAY have heard of:

   

…you probably HAVEN’T heard of, but SHOULD know: 

                                                                        

                                                                                                       

 

I uncovered a fascinating ecosystem filled with brands, cultures, and ideas on the leading edge of innovation.    “Innovation” is Seattle’s “thing”.   Okay okay….”Innovation” may seem too generic or overplayed, but the word becomes impressively succinct when you see how the networks feed each other, often unintentionally, to shape progress across the spectrum of humanity.   I’m not just talking business innovation, I’m talking innovation in every corner of life.   Creativity begets innovation which begets progress.  Getting better every day:  it’s happening here in a very big way.    Not convinced?   Keep reading.

Two people?

Think about two people who have had a major, positive influence in your life:  Parents, teachers, mentors, friends…. any two people who provided positive guidance and mentorship for you.  

Got em? 

Consider the impact if those two occasionally met for coffee with the expressed objective to make your life better. While sipping PSLs, they talked about your life, your goals, and how to help you improve in every facet. These two people would likely find new, innovative ways to help you become better.  That would be an impactful meeting, right?  You would likely be more receptive to their recommendations and actually take action because of their positive track record in your life.  

Now consider this:  The two wealthiest people in the world (“Bill G.” and “Jeff B.”) work out of offices that are nine Seattle blocks away from each other. NINE BLOCKS! Proximity allows for a highly centralized epicenter of innovative thinking.  In addition, Bill’s office space is partially funded by a philanthropic Nebraska guy named Warren.   The world’s top three wealthiest individuals pour their resources into Seattle.      Add Seattleites Steve Ballmer (#21)  and Paul Allen (#44) to the party and things get really interesting (especially if Ballmer breaks out the Monkey Boy.)     They’re solving different problems that create a diversified portfolio of innovative methodologies.  At the center of these distinct missions is a heavy dose of creativity and imaginative thinking to make life better.  

My guess is that this crew doesn’t grab lattes very often, but people that support their respective organizations surely do…many times over.   Pair that idea, with this list, all happening within a 25-mile radius and you’ll find an incubator of innovation that propels ideas from kernel to full-blown culture at an impressive rate.  Innovation isn’t exclusive to Seattle, (these guys would agree), but it serves as one of the world’s leading centers of innovation that is uniquely influenced by both the philanthropic and creative communities .

This city is rich:  I’m not talking Gates/Bezos-cheddar, to the contrary, I’m talking about a wealth of knowledge and perspective that carries no price tag. There is an incredible bounty of insights and creativity offered by the organizations that call Seattle home.

 

20-minute drive to Issaquah. 

I’ve been blessed with a lot of incredible meetings throughout this journey, but one registered a meaningful impact on the topic of culture.  I pulled up to a non-descript building.  No signage.  No pomp.  Just a building.  There’s a good chance that you’re sitting in a nicer/fancier building while reading this post, but this non-descript location serves as the global headquarters for a company with $129 billion in revenue last year.    Yes, “billion”, Dr. Evil. 

Costco’s legendary strategy is rivaled only by its legendary culture.  My goal was to learn about this unique, innovative culture that drives incredible loyalty and productivity in an industry traditionally known for the exact opposite. 

My meeting was with Yoon Kim, General Merchandise Manager, who passionately articulated the genius behind the culture.  The beauty is in the simplicity:   An immutable devotion to core values.  These aren’t just a bunch of words created at an executive offsite, these are values that lead the behaviors and decisions of the entire organization.  Yoon hit on many key points, but four jumped off the page:  

  • Teaching culture. There is a heavy emphasis on every associate’s responsibility to educate, regardless of where you fall on the org chart.   Yoon stated an incredible ratio: TEACHING (80%): DAY-TO-DAY (20%).   Associates should dedicate 80% of their time to “teaching” and 20% to their daily responsibilities.  When the organization places such a high priority on teaching, intangible barriers to knowledge transfer are minimized or eliminated entirely.   Ideas move faster, processes become more fluid, and everyone, including customers, benefit from higher quality decision-making.
  • No hubris. Arrogance isn’t tolerated.  This is especially important when an environment of learning is prioritized.  Remember that kid in the 3rd grade who constantly bragged about knowing the multiplication table before everyone else?   He doesn’t work at Costco now.  The transfer of knowledge becomes severely handicapped if hubris is allowed to inhibit the adoption rate. Knowledge is power.   Power can yield hubris.  You will be hard-pressed to find a more genuine leader than co-founder, Jim Senegal.    His legacy of authenticity permeates the Costco culture making hubris an organizational outlier.
  • Accountability – When big decisions are being reviewed, associates are encouraged to “Partner Up” to properly vet the choice at hand. Partnering Up ensures that no decision is made in a vacuum, especially those that carry significant implications.  The fact that Costco has an actual phrase, “Partnering Up”, exemplifies the commitment to quality decision making and creates a culture of accessibility where senior executives are available to conduct proper due diligence on big decisions.  
  • Clarity and Focus. There’s a strategic reason why you can only purchase the mega-sized container of everything.  Costco offers less than 4,000 SKUs.  (Stock Keeping Unit).  In comparison, the Targets and Walmarts of the world offer over 100,000 SKUs.   Even your local grocery store carries about 40,000 SKUs.  When there are fewer variables to manage in the business (in this case, 96% fewer variables), you have more money, resources, and time to successfully tackle items like the teaching culture and partnering up.

I walked away with a tremendous appreciation for a company that has achieved mastery in clarity, productivity, and loyalty through a set of simple, but impactful dictums.  Innovation doesn’t always mean an advancement in technology.  In this case, it’s simply providing innovation through the structure, support, and accountability that empowers employees to accomplish great things on a daily basis. 

Whether a company like Costco or a city like Seattle, the building blocks of innovation requires intention and care.   Are you running your firm with the necessary intention and care?

 

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