I've been watching the new hit TV show "Gold Rush," about amateur gold miners in Alaska and the Yukon. Their struggle to find gold reminds me of the quest for innovation in technology companies. It's interesting to compare the two quests.
Illustration by Scott Cooper
In Gold Rush, a semi-documentary, semi-reality show, big, burly men battle the elements (and sometimes each other) to find gold in the endless miles of wilderness in the 49th state. These days gold is around $1500 an ounce, so a couple of handfuls is all these guys need to have a successful mining season.
Often, all a new technology company needs to become a juggernaut is a couple of handfuls of invention, a few ounces of insight. Google, for example, didn't invent search, they simply added the brilliantly simple idea of ranking search results by the number of references they found. Building their massive search engine and finding a way to monetize their service remained a huge task, but the innovation was just a single nugget. Ironically, the Gold Rush miners almost never work directly with gold. The big problem in gold mining isn't the gold itself, it's dealing with everything that isn't gold. All of their attention and equipment is focused on the not-gold. While they dream of a few handfuls of yellow metal, their day-to-day world is dominated by countless tons of everything else. For the miners to collect a few ounces of gold, these tough, XXL guys have to bulldoze acres of forest, pump rivers of water, dig tons of rock, and move mountains of dirt. They need giant tractors and huge excavators. They need rock and sand sifting machines the size of houses. They also have to contend with trees, wild animals, harsh weather, cash flow, fickle girlfriends, and internecine friction.
Most of what goes on in innovative companies is the simple hard work of designing, coding, and deploying software. It's the quotidian blocking and tackling of everyday business: finding bugs, getting the pixels right, answering the phone. One seed pearl bright idea can occupy a technical team for a year or more, building software and shoveling an endless wilderness of bits. Regardless of the creative brilliance, building a company or a product is mostly just hard work.
The Alaskan gold is just lying there, pure, untarnished, ready to be picked up and sold. They don't have to coerce or cajole it. They don't need to identify or interpret it. Gold is easy to spot, but it rarely comes in a big, fortune-making nugget. It comes in millions of tiny flakes, deposited over the millennia in ancient stream beds.
Innovation is often the same, made up of thousands of tiny shards of creativity. Like gold, creativity rarely comes in giant dollops of obviousness. It tends to arrive in many tiny increments, only the whole of which add up to something revolutionary. So, while the miners have to discard ten-ton boulders, the gold flakes hiding underneath must be handled with exquisite delicacy.
Like mining gold, the quest for innovation is dominated by what isn't innovative. Mostly it's cubicles of conventional work, and it's easy for the delicate innovation to be inadvertently smashed by some hard-rock business process. Just like gold mining, business demands a deft combination of brute force and subtle precision, of massive infrastructure and sensitive awareness.
If you visit a gold mine, you won't see very much gold. If you visit a very innovative company, you won't see crowds of shock-haired Albert Einstein's riding around on Segways reinventing the space-time-continuum. You'll see teams of young men and women working hard at mostly mundane tasks, moving mountains of information, winnowing their way to something of immense value. What lurks there is a respectful awareness of the unique nature of creativity, and how to nurture it. Managers who want innovation don't need to demand it, they merely need to not let the mountain moving of commerce obscure the precious, delicate, dust of invention.