So today was my halfway+1 day mark. I’ve spent a full fortnight here. I still don’t speak Flemish. I have only begun to scratch the surface of Belgian beers. I have not had a Belgian waffle or Belgian chocolate yet.
I have excuses, though. Flemish is a lost cause — I can barely pronounce their diphthongs and remember their street names. There are about 10,000 amazing beers here, and I am making good progress (I’ve tried somewhere between 30 and 50). And the waffles and chocolate region is more on the coast, so I am saving that unhealthy experience for my visit there next weekend.
I have learned a heck of a lot. Before coming to AB InBev, I had never worked at a truly behemoth company before. Here, my team is small enough that I get to see both the benefits and challenges of trying to be innovative within a company focused on efficiency and execution. Sometimes it is just the simple things — seeing the planning meetings and project rationales — that help me to understand the company culture.
And culture is an important word. At Stanford, we talk a lot about culture. We talk about how to create it, how to change it, what it good, what is bad, what might matter and might not. Everywhere I have been has been small enough that the CEO could lead by example or explicitly state the culture of a place, and people would at least understand what he (in both cases it was a he) was looking for. Here, the culture must trickle down. People refer to “Brito” — Carlos Brito, the CEO of AB InBev based in NYC — and what he would think of an idea. But there are a few people between us and him, and they each influence culture in their own way.
What has amazed me is that everyone here is really passionate about what they do. It is not a question of whether an idea is good, it is how do they build the business case to support an innovative product. How do you build an alliance around a great idea? How do you get an idea far enough to demonstrate feasibility without costing the company a fortune — especially for a company that produces products like Bud Light, a super high volume product?
It makes me think of Google. 20% time is sort of brilliant. Sort of insane. It is brilliant in that it is a sunk cost — if something comes of it, it is pure bonus. It is insane in that everyone needs to earn their paycheck in 80% of the time. Honestly, this probably happens anyway, but to codify it is a bit uncomfortable to the manager in me. In the end, I fully support it, though. To hear rumors that it is going away at Google makes me sad, because search is great, but Gmail is vital. I just hope that more companies can embrace innovation like this — take the risk and see what incredible ideas pop up.