Building A Rainforest Firm: Lessons From Silicon Valley

Your design firm can step up its game by adopting a few principles that make Silicon Valley the world’s most productive center for innovation.

As an architect, I’ve always been focused on creating firms and project teams that can draw the best talent and do the best work. A friend recently recommended a book that provides a great model. We know that rainforests are the most diverse, fertile and biologically productive places on earth – so how can we achieve the same qualities in a design firm?

The Rainforest: The Secret to Building the Next Silicon Valley explores the magic of Silicon Valley in nurturing innovation and entrepreneurship. After reading a few pages, I realized that the “Rules of the Rainforest” apply to creative companies as well as our cities and regions.

“Rainforest” cultures have strong networks of people who trust each other, are motivated by ambitious ideas, and readily share information and resources. Authors Victor Hwang and Greg Horowitt explain that “A Rainforest is a human ecosystem in which human creativity, business acumen, scientific discovery, investment capital, and other elements come together.”

The authors contend that America has been a natural source of innovation because we’re a melting pot of talents and skills, free from many of the tribal divisions that have plagued much of human civilization. They describe California as the ultimate destination in the American frontier, where people had to trust each other and work together to survive. This created a unique culture for collaboration and innovation: it’s why Silicon Valley is more productive in this way than New York, Chicago, or other places that are also home to lots of smart people.

This kind of diversity and collaboration is the “secret sauce” in the best creative firms.
The key ingredients are people, of course – and the best teams mix disciplines, talents, experiences, ages, gender, ethnic backgrounds, and personal interests. My most successful projects have always involved an improbable mix of bright individuals – among them architects, planners, engineers, interior designers, urban designers, landscape architects, behavioral psychologists, biologists, anthropologists, graphic designers, lighting designers, theatre designers, writers, and others – who leave their egos and traditional professional boundaries behind in dedicating themselves to the team’s work.

Who’s to say where the next best idea will come from? You’d be surprised. According to Hwang and Horowitt, “the magic of the Rainforest is the way it lowers social barriers between people sitting right next to each other…Innovation comes from the way that people interrelate to combine and share ideas, talent, and capital.”

Gender diversity seems particularly significant. The authors quote a study by Carnegie-Mellon and MIT researchers about collective intelligence.   “They found that ‘a group’s ability to solve tasks is correlated to the average social sensitivity of group members, the equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking, and the proportion of females in the group.’ In other words, the quality of a group’s collective output appears to depend on…its human-to-human dynamics.”

It takes the right kind of leaders to get the best from the most talented teams. Those leaders must honor their people, know their inherent capabilities, break down organizational barriers, foster interaction, and be able to draw the right contributions from the right people at the right times. Hwang and Horowitt call these people “keystones”: “certain individuals… have the special ability to integrate disparate people, influencing them to act in ways that impact the entire system. They glue people together.”

Does this sound familiar? If you understand servant leadership, or like the orchestra-leader model, this is it. It’s essential if you want to attract and keep the best people in your organization.

It is possible for creative professionals to survive in a more hostile environment, but it’s difficult. Some of the most parochial design firms, known for their internal competition, have strong underground connections among staff members with special expertise and experience. It might not be encouraged from the top, but these folks quietly manage to share what they know to help the firm achieve great things. They’re like the mycelium that binds fungi together, or other common root systems that make some plant systems so resilient.

So what are the lessons of the Rainforest for design firms? Two big ones:
1. Recruit, develop, and support the most diverse talent that’s appropriate for your markets and services. Your firm will be much more productive with different disciplines, ages, backgrounds, styles, and interests in the mix.

2. Promote leaders who are “keystones” in leveraging the collaborative potential of your team. As principals, designers, project managers, or technical leaders, they will be brokers of trust and cooperation among everyone else in the firm.

You will do better work, attract stronger people, and perform at a higher level as a “Rainforest firm.”  If you have any doubts, read the book.  Let me know how it works for you.


Clark Davis, FAIA, LEED AP is a Principal Consultant with Cameron MacAllister Group. He leads services in strategy, leadership development, and organizational change. If you are interested in learning how Clark can help your firm, contact him directly at 636-448-9227 or via email.

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