This month I spoke to the Daily Telegraph’s James Cook and Morgan Meaker for an article they were writing about Cambridge – ‘Why Cambridge’s Silicon Fen is fast becoming Europe’s answer to California’. Whilst we are home to fewer celebrities and considerably less sunshine, it is true that Cambridge, England, home to the Speechmatics HQ, is a hotbed of the world’s best technology talent.
Somehow, the ‘re-branding’ of organic innovation communities has become commonplace – Silicon Roundabout in East London, Silicon Spires in Oxford. For me though, Silicon ‘Fen’ is more than a geographic label. ‘The Fens’ is a coastal plain in the east of England. They are particularly fertile lands supporting a rich ecology and numerous species and it is this similarity to the Cambridge tech ecosystem that I find so interesting.
The Fens provide the perfect environment for agriculture and my interview with The Telegraph made me reflect on what it is about Cambridge and the ingrained culture here that creates a similarly fertile environment for the big thinkers that are leading on world-changing innovations. What can we learn from this great city and how can we reflect this magic within our own businesses?
Anyone that lives here or has visited has marvelled at the surroundings. You will see livestock grazing open fields in the shadows of beautiful architecture and there are more bikes than cars on the roads.
It’s not only our natural beauty that puts us on the map: Cambridge University is a globally renowned institution and was home to some of the biggest of big thinkers before the word ‘technology’ was even in common parlance. Cambridge was the base for Stephen Hawking throughout his career and the place where Charles Darwin, the ‘father of evolutionary biology’ studied. There are nods to these city greats dotted across its 40+ square kilometer footprint and a stroll around the center will provide ample inspiration.
Getting out of the same room, with the same walls and view is critical to sparking creativity – particularly after the stillness of the last year. From this week in England, the galleries are open again, you can once more invite people into your home and even hug your loved ones. Optimizing your environment is important – no good ideas come from staring at a beige wall.
There can be a tendency for businesses to take fewer risks, feel more fear and think ‘smaller’ as they grow. On day one, there is nothing to lose – ideas and ambitions are limitless. It is critical that fast-growth technology companies maintain a culture that promotes big thinking and accepts failure as a side-effect.
Those with an appetite for management books will know about ‘BHAG’ goals – big, hairy, audacious goals. This type of goal setting drives excitement and energy into the business, and it is better to achieve 80% of a BHAG than 100% of a conservative one. Think about where that ceiling is in the business and raise it up even if it doesn’t appear logical at first – many ideas were initially rejected by peers, politicians or the public. In 1966, Time Magazine reported that “remote shopping, while entirely feasible, will flop.” I am not sure Jeff Bezos would agree.
People come to Cambridge to study and often end up staying – taking years to research and perfect their ideas. Rarely does anyone sit down at their desk and ‘come up with an idea’ in minutes. In talking to some of my Speechmatics colleagues, it is apparent that the formulation of good ideas come when we are driving, cooking, exercising, gardening or (trying to) sleep, for example – ideas take time. One huge benefit of the COVID-19 pandemic has been this shift to hybrid working and the recognition that the traditional 9-5 is not only not needed but also not helpful. Changing the way we structure our days to allow time for thinking and reflection, discussion and collaboration is critical.
At Speechmatics, we encourage our teams to take the time to think in a way that best suits them. We have added planters to our outside space at our Cambridge HQ to give a place away from desks during office-based days, inviting colleagues to plant and nurture young seedlings and to take time to reflect and spark thoughts, and we have an annual ‘thinking’ week – ‘Hackamatics’ – a ‘sprint-like’ event where teams collaborate over unique projects with no distractions from the ‘day job’. Hackamatics is open to all sorts of wonderful and bizarre endeavors – both inside and outside of the software sphere – and the process itself goes a long way to firing up the synapses!
As the Cambridge community once again starts to gather and the science parks and business schools start to buzz with the greatest minds, I will continue to hold on to this notion of ‘thinking big’. I have been hugely impressed by the Speechmatics team over lockdown. Despite the physical and mental limitations brought about by COVID-19, they have continued to push boundaries. As Speechmatics continues to grow, we will keep a fearless mindset, celebrate ideas and give ourselves and each other the time we need to think. The alternative isn’t an option.
Katy Wigdahl, Speechmatics
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