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  • 04.03.12

KAYAK On Creating A Culture Of Innovation

KAYAK cofounder Paul English has a bold idea about what makes a team that can act fast on its creative ideas: All of its 150 employees are entrepreneurs.

When it comes to creatvity, we all interact with people and objects that inspire us. So it was no surprise to hear English profess his love for a device when asked. “I love my iPad because of the amazing new apps that come out every week. I’ve never seen a product that ‘changes’ so quickly.” Even though Loca People by DJ Sak Noel is in heavy rotation on his iTunes, English “prefers silence when I’m designing something new.”

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Fast Company sat down with English, who is participating in the upcoming  Innovation Uncensored event on Wednesday, April 18 in New York City, to discuss his thoughts on creativity, leadership, ideas, and innovation.

FAST COMPANY: How did you find your last great idea?

PAUL ENGLISH: The first one that comes to mind was not my idea, but one I was just discussing: I was in a taxi with our Chief Architect, Bill O’Donnell, and we showed the taxi driver the hotel name from our KAYAK iPhone app. The driver did not read English, and tried to find just the hotel name and address from our Trips details screen. Bill then said, “We should have a ‘taxi zoom’ button that shows only the hotel and and address, in a huge font, so you can use it for just this purpose.” I thought that was genius.

What about your team at KAYAK?

This year our team introduced the option to complete hotel purchases directly on KAYAK, where we used to only send users off to their chosen hotel or agency site. In my own travel the last few months, I’ve realized the purchase-direct-on-KAYAK option is so dramatically better a solution than booking elsewhere (setting up an account at each site, using sites which don’t work well on mobile)–that I decided to simply make the KAYAK purchase option be the default one–while still always showing all other purchase options.

What advice can you give other companies that want to create a culture of innovation?

Only hire entrepreneurs. Each of KAYAK’s 150 employees–whether here eight years or just since last week–are entrepreneurs. Everything we do encourages fast decision-making and risk-taking. We don’t do design by committee, and we disable large meetings here. We reward risk-taking and speed, even when it fails!

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What can a big company learn from a startup?

Don’t do indoctrination, where you pummel each employee to think like the Borg. (For those not up to speed on their Star Trek lore, Borg is a pseudo-race of beings who
get assimilated into an interconnected “hive mind,” losing all sense of
self.) Encourage your employees to be individuals, and get them to try new things. SVPs should be measured on how many product or process innovations their team tried each quarter.

What do you think is the most important trait for a successful leader?

Confidence.

What do you wish someone had told you about leadership before becoming a manager?

Spend more time with the A-players and less time trying to help the C-players.

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What was the most valuable experience you’ve had as a leader that has made you a better boss?

Hiring other leaders who are confident enough to tell me I’m full of shit when I’m wrong about something.

What’s the biggest blind spot in leaders today, and how do you correct it?

Lack of simplicity. Search inside yourself to see what really motivates you, and then just tell that to people. Explain just the top three priorities–no more–and set a culture to let people work with to find solutions.

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This post is part of a series giving readers a sneak peek at some of
the speakers and the ideas we’ll be discussing at Innovation Uncensored on April 18 in New York City.

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  • Bob Bowman, President & CEO, MLB Advanced Media
  • Alexis Ohanian, Cofounder, Reddit
  • Bob Lord, Global CEO, Razorfish
  • General (Ret.) Stanley A. McChrystal, U.S. Army; Cofounder, The McChrystal Group
  • Stefan Olander, VP. Digital Sport, Nike

If you haven’t registered yet, there’s still time! Click here for more information.

We invite you to share your own thoughts on innovation and leadership in the comments below or in our Innovation Uncensored LinkedIn Group. Join the conversation on Twitter, using the hashtag #IU12.

 Follow Paul English on Twitter. Follow Jocelyn Hawkes on Twitter.

[Photo courtesy of Flickr user rfong]

About the author

I was previously the Special Projects Editor at Fast Company. I curated content and booked speakers for Fast Company events such as Innovation Uncensored, Most Creative People, and Masters of Design.

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