William Taylor is a writer, antrepreneur and founder of one of the most forward thinking magazines in the US – fastcompany.com – a magazine dedicated to business innovation and to out of the box business practices. In time, Taylor interviewed hundreds of managers from companies whose creative and counterintuitive approaches to business have managed, in several cases, to set new standards for excellence in their respective industries. The most outstanding case studies are comprised in his books, “Mavericks at Work” and “Practically Radical” – both fascinating journeys through a universe where business is fun and colorful, where extraordinary ideas come from the most unusual places.
Reading his books I realized, once more, how worryingly often we get caught in the thinking patterns of our own jobs, companies or industries and lose sight of amazing opportunities of finding new and valuable ideas. One of the examples offered by William Taylor in “Mavericks at Work” is particularly worth sharing, since it comes, unexpectedly, from one of the most conservative industries one might imagine – mining.
„Gold mining is an old industry, a tired industry. The pace of change is glacial. Traditionally, mining companies have worried about how strong your back is, not how big your brain is. We wanted to do something that no one in the industry had done, to tap into the intellectual capital of the whole world.“– Rob McEwen, Former Chairman and CEO, GoldCorp INC.
Rob McEwen a revolutionized the gold mining industry in a moment of, I dare say, despair. For more than 5 years, GoldCorp had been trying to win a dangerous bet – they had acquired a mine in Red Lake, Ontario, in an area famous for its rich gold deposits. That particular mine however, had a sad history – low productivity, failed investments and union problems. Still, McEwen refused to give up the idea that the mine had potential and, for 5 years, he invested over 10 millon USD in experimental drills – all that money for a hope! The good news was that the mine had potential – GoldCorp’s geologists found gold in 9 out of 10 drillings. However, they couldn’t determine how big the gold deposit was and where the official drilling should begin. They simply couldn’t answer those questions, and the more it took them to investigate the answer, the more money the company lost.
That was the moment when McEwen took the decision that would turn the whole industry on its head. The idea came to him after participating in a conference about the latest technology trends. McEwen came back fascinated about the notion of “open source programming” – a system in which programmers from around the world, passionate about IT and motivated by the competition with the best in their field, voluntarily wrote code for software programs that would normally cost millions USD to produce. Out of this innovative system came programs which no company owns, but which have shaped our lives in ways we can hardly imagine. Crucial software that made the existence of the internet possible was created this way. Linux, one of the most stable and high-performing operating systems in the world, is probably the most famous example.
McEwen was fascinated by the idea that something so complex could be created by a bunch of brilliant people, who’ve never seen each other and who are led by nobody but their own passion for the job. Such a system is close to miraculous. Could it work in an industry other than IT? McEwen decided to answer this question.
It was then that GoldCorp’s CEO made a historical decision, fiercely criticized by most of the company’s managers and ridiculed by the competition. He decided to publicize on the internet all the data GoldCorp had on Red Lake mine – 50 years worth of maps, reports and geological information – and to invite scientists from around the world to propose the best drilling solution for the mine which had “swallowed” so many resources without giving anything in return. “The GoldCorp Challenge”, as the project was named, was launched as an open competition. The prize? 500 000 USD and worldwide recognition for the winner.
McEwen led a battle for his idea – a battle against a system fraught with conservatism and obsessed with confidentiality, a battle against XIX century rules that continued to govern the mining industry and, last but not least, a battle against the mentality of GoldCorp’s own employees, who refused to concede that somebody from outside the organization might solve a problem they themselves hadn’t managed to solve.
You probably guessed that this story has a happy ending. GoldCorp received over 1400 projects from 51 countries – 140 of them exceptionally detailed. More than half the suggestions they received were completely new approaches, ideas that hadn’t even been considered until then. What was even more impressive than the number of ideas was their originality. GoldCorp received projects from research areas they hadn’t even imagined might hold something valuable for mining – applied mathematics, advanced physics, computer graphics. The project that finally won made McEwen gasp in awe – he later confessed that he had never seen such high quality graphics, they simply didn’t exist in his industry.
Today Red Lake is considered the richest gold mine in the world. It produces so much ore at such a low cost that the company affords to make gold deposits, waiting for prices to rise. I don’t even need to mention the effect this “open source” project had on GoldCorp stock. Just think that a 100 000 USD investment in Microsoft in 1993 was worth 895 000 USD in 2005. The same investment in GoldCorp in was worth 2.9 Million USD – 30 times more.
Surely, this amazing success is also owed to McEwen’s incredible intuition when he decided to invest in Red Lake. But his courage to open up to the world and believe it’s possible to have the best people in the world work with you, even if they don’t work for you, was decisive.
Today, more and more organizations are tapping into “open source” innovation. Pharmaceutical companies, PR companies, restaurant chains – nobody can find all possible solutions on their own. Moreover, we’re bound to discover that, whatever problem it is that we’re working on, it’s almost certain that someone, in some corner of the world, has already solved it. Finding that “someone” is the tricky part.
What can we learn from GoldCorp’s and other similar companies’ stories? That often it pays off to defy the rules. That more minds will almost certainly be more creative than one. What can we hope? That the companies of tomorrow will be open companies, who’ll take it easier on the “I” mentality, emphasizing the “We”, that they’ll be less arrogant and more willing to seek for answers and great ideas outside the organization, just as much as they seek them on the inside.
I’ll end this story with a few questions for you. How do you think an individual manager might apply the “open source innovation” principle? How can you stimulate out-of-the-box thinking in your people, how can you find new ideas, fresh resources for creativity in less than usual places? Might it be valuable that we seek to surround ourselves with different people, from different backgrounds, and diverse ideas, rallying them around a common goal, instead of always looking for people who are like us?
I look forward to all your comments and ideas and hope to have managed to convince you that good ideas seldom come from the one and often from the many.