Innovation in the Rainforest?

I was recently invited to speak at a 3 day workshop on innovation entitled ‘Rainforest Architects,’ sponsored by Greg Horowitt and Victor Hwang, partners and co-founders of T2 Venture Capital, and co-authors of the book The Rainforest – the Secret to Building the Next Silicon Valley.  The conference sought to build on the themes of the book, which examines the metaphorical contrast between the well-manicured order of the plantation, and the chaos of the Rainforest.  The plantation represents our disciplined, ordered, and (relatively) well organized economy.  Break-through innovations have been the equivalents of weeds that have somehow been able to flourish– weeds that traditional businesses and organized economies normally reject. “While plants grow most efficiently on farms, weeds sprout best in Rainforests.”

rainforestThe workshop was held in Silicon Valley, since Silicon Valley is the Rainforest they describe, having become a hot bed of innovation and creative ideas that in most cases, were rejected by the ‘plantation owners’ in the US economy of  15, 20, 25  years ago. Many of those plantation-like businesses are now defunct, but the best and strongest weeds, the Googles, the Facebooks, and others have transformed their industries, and arguably our world.  The plantation model still works for efficient implementation and ‘harvesting’ of proven ideas, but the chaos of the Rainforest is where the new ideas, the ‘weeds,’  grow and flourish, and where the best and strongest can prove themselves.

Given that the Rainforest is chaotic and disorganized, I was asked to bring in the perspective of another culture – the Navy SEALs – which has thrived and succeeded in the chaos of the battlefield.  Since SEALs often speak of themselves as ‘masters of chaos,’ and have thrived as a weed within the well-ordered plantation of the Navy,  Greg  wanted the business entrepreneurs  attending this workshop – his Rainforest Architects –to hear from a representative of this successful military ‘start-up’ which has gotten so much attention lately.  And through a couple of mutual friends, he was connected to me.

I was asked to speak on ‘comfort in chaos,’ and I did – generally noting that we should never be ‘comfortable’ in chaos – instead, we should seek to be as well prepared as possible, and when in chaos, stay very, very alert and tuned in, and look hard to find the patterns. SEALs and other SOF train hard to master the chaos of the battlefield by being better prepared and better trained than anyone else in the gunfight, and they mitigate risk by planning and preparing for things to go wrong. We talked about managing luck, good and bad, and becoming more resilient by purposely spending a lot of time outside of our comfort zone, but trying to stay within our safety zone.  After examining my experience and preparing the themes I wanted to address, I found many of the same ideas better expressed– but without the SEAL or military connection – in two books:  Great by Choice, by Jim Collins, and The Icarus Deception by Seth Godin.    I think I led a good discussion with the Rainforest Architects, but we didn’t get specifically to ‘innovation’ as I had hoped. The topic of positive innovation, and creative thought, individually, organizationally, and socially continues to fascinate me.

The reading I did on ‘innovation’ struck me a lot like the reading I have done on leadership: it is a very broad topic, a bit mushy (which I like), there are a number of different models that have succeeded, and innovation and leadership both must adapt to culture and context to succeed.   I found many formulae for enhancing one’s own innovative spirit and personal creativity, formulae for leaders and organizations to foster innovation within their companies/teams, and how innovative teams, often called ‘skunk works’ (check out the etymology)  can organize themselves to best nurture that great idea that will transform their organization, society, or the world.  I also found interesting material about when NOT to innovate, and when to hunker down with the tried and true.   But what I found most insightful were the ideas in Greg and Victor’s Rainforest book and workshop, emphasizing  the need for a supportive ‘economic ecosystem’ to ensure that  great and innovative ideas don’t die on the vine (as many do), but get traction, gain momentum, and have a positive and enduring impact.

The Rainforest Architect approach emphasizes the social and personal relationship piece of the innovation process, and less the scientist working alone in a lab who (for example,) may develop a cure for diabetes.  Greg and Victor make the point that money is not the primary driver for most successful innovators, nor for their supporters , a point also made by Simon Sinek in Start with Why, and Daniel Pink in Drive, among others.  Money and capital are certainly an important part of the process, but their point is that passion and zeal for the idea and the impact it can have, are the primary drivers in most great innovations – not the drive to get rich.  Start with a great, or even pretty good, idea, add passion and zeal on the part not only of the creative, but also the support team, throw in strong business skills, trust between the players, and an economic ecosystem that supports innovation, and the money will naturally follow.

In short, Greg and Victor’s Rainforest message is that ‘it takes a village’ to foster and sustain innovation, and that ‘village’ can be social, entrepreneurial, business, and scientific networks spanning the globe.  That village needs to promote collaboration and trust, and create a space for ideas to come together, and in the words of Matt Ridley, ‘have sex.’  It is a complicated process, and the roles of biology, human relationships and a support community have been undervalued in understanding the innovation process.  A few short quotes from The Rainforest – the Secret to Building the Next Silicon Valley give you a sense for the key messages I took from the book:

–          To understand Silicon Valley, we must think of its people as a living biological system, not the sum of its individual components. P271

–          Successful innovation requires the labors of a vast ecosystem of executives, engineers, salespeople, advisors, consultants, venture capitalists, angel investors, accountants, landlords, lawyers, marketers, bankers, supportive friends, and countless others. Page 82

–          The secret recipe of Rainforests…is about people and how they interact with one another. P64

–          Rainforests have replaced tribalism with a culture of informal rules that allow strangers to work together efficiently on temporary projects. P116

–          The informal rules that govern Rainforests cause people to restrain their short-term self-interest for long-term mutual gain. P121

–          Rainforests like Silicon Valley have developed ways to foster communication, trust, and collaboration among very different kinds of people.  P111

–          Leaders in the Rainforest must learn to engineer serendipity, not outcomes. P275

In preparing for my participation in the workshop, I got a feel for the extensive literature and breadth of thinking on innovation, not only individual creativity, but also how organizations and social and economic ecosystem can foster it.  Exploring the process that leads to breakthroughs that propel our individual, organizational and socio-economic lives forward is a fascinating new world for me.  Clearly, we need analytical, systematic, and plantation-owner thinking in most aspects of our lives, and most of us spend our lives living and working in the well-organized and comfortable world of our (metaphorical) plantations.  But the world of the entrepreneur, the venture capitalist, the start-up, and the innovator is different.   As Greg Horowitt and Victor Hwang write, there are great insights to be gained by purposely (and courageously) walking out into the Rainforest, and seeking to learn from the chaos and innovation in nature, and considering what those processes might teach us as we try to foster an economic ecosystem that gives new and innovative ideas a chance to prove themselves.

Note and Postscript:  The values that the book espouses are of particular interest to me as someone who (still) teaches business ethics.  They are generally consistent with a new movement by successful entrepreneurs and thought leaders like Bill Gates (‘Creative Capitalism,) Michael Porter (‘Shared-Value Capitalism,’) John Mackey (‘Conscious Capitalism,’) and others.   You can read, comment on, and/or endorse the Rainforest Social Contract at 

4 thoughts on “Innovation in the Rainforest?

  1. At the end of the day, innovation happens one mind at a time. Thank you for giving me the “embrace the suck” message because it has given strength to the innovation smugglers in my department. Innovation in a corporation is like war, and it doesn’t pay to run straight into the arms of the enemy, who are people that are fearful of what innovation means. Innovation, is clever, lighting ideas, one mind at a time, until its light is too bright to ignore.

    Great job Bob!


    • Natalie – Most organizations have ‘anti-bodies’ that attack foreing ideas that come in and threaten the ‘natural’ order. It’s biological, which Craig argues, is the basis for the whole Rainforest concept. Now, you owe me a book report on Fearless, and to pass it on to anohter lucky reader! Bob


  2. Innovation is like everything else – some good and some not so good! Innovation for innovation’s sake is definitely not a good idea and it often seems to me to be completely pointless and, in some cases, actually detrimental I do like the idea that most organisations have “antibodies” which somehow separate the wheat from the chaff. I would call these “antibodies” common-sense! On the whole, I agree with the wise lady who told you that there was too much innovation and one can’t keep up with it!


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