Thoughts on Innovation: Ove Arup’s Key Speech

I recently re-read Sir Ove Arup’s “Key Speech”, his prose on the path forward for his company, written in 1970. It’s a treatise on the principles of fair dealing, codifies the importance of quality at his company, and that the work they do should benefit employees. Reading the piece almost five decades after its creation and finding it more relevant than ever reminds me of the lasting power of creating a strong culture. And just how pioneering Arup was.

Arup created his eponymous engineering and construction firm in 1946 and helped grow it into a global powerhouse, which now employs 14,000 people in 92 offices in 42 countries with work stretching to 160 countries. The firm rose to prominence with the structural engineering of the Sydney Opera House and then the Centre Pompidou in Paris.

The distributed nature of the work they do would seem to breed the worst conditions for establishing a consistent, lasting culture. And, yet, even today, 71 years after he founded the company and 29 years after his death, Arup Group is extremely well run and its employees, regardless of where in the world they are, continue to embody Arup’s principles (indeed, the Key Speech remains required reading for every new employee).

Being based in Silicon Valley, I only hope the startups I work with can establish a culture half as enduring as Arup’s.

The speech is wide ranging, delving into equal opportunity, the nature of ownership, and the tendency for money to divide us, among other issues. The point that strikes me as most crucial: Embracing a hierarchical structure runs contrary to embracing innovation. Hierarchies within companies stop innovation in its tracks, leading to stagnant work environments and unsatisfied employees.

This point alone is enough of a reason to make Arup a management pioneer. The prevailing management method at the time of the Key Speech was Ford Motor’s hierarchical structure that served to micromanage the creativity out of individual employees. But that approach — thank goodness — has largely fallen out of favor.

Certainly, Silicon Valley has come to believe in the last 20 years that hierarchies do not help innovation bloom. The approach here is very much about growing and enabling ecosystems. Large companies feed off of startups, startups feed off of large companies, and both are intermingled with academia. An ecosystem such as this does not adhere to hierarchy — it is organic.

At the time Arup wrote his Key Speech, however, he had no such reference point in Silicon Valley. His insights were new and fresh. And while they are no longer new, they remain as fresh as ever.

Dr. Ajit Singh is a Silicon Valley-based partner at Artiman Ventures, an early-stage venture fund investing in white space companies creating or disrupting multi-billion dollar markets. He is also a Consulting Professor in the School of Medicine at Stanford University and holds a doctorate in Computer Science from Columbia University.