FastCompany recently released its list of the world’s 50 most innovative companies.
Many of the names on the list come as no surprise, especially the top three (Apple, Facebook, and Google). But what caught my attention was the diversity of companies and industries represented.
Technology and Internet companies dominate the list (again, no surprise). But what did surprise me was the number of industries making the list that you might not expect to see, such as higher education, healthcare, and fast food chains. As this list indicates, with the right attitude and approach, innovation can happen in almost any sector of the business world.
Even UPS, with its conservative brown uniforms and laser like focus on efficiency of movement, made the list! How could a company whose business model consists of schlepping packages from one place to another be considered a leading innovator? It all depends on how you define innovation.
Too many companies see innovation as merely coming up with new products or services. Certainly, that’s part of it. But at its core, innovation is all about thinking differently than you have in the past. It’s about finding new ways to improve internal systems and processes. It’s about coming up with better, faster, and cheaper solutions to your customers’ most pressing problems.
As with any list of this nature, people can disagree about who belongs on it and why. But clearly, each of the companies on the FastCompany list made a significant break with the way things are always done in their industry. In doing so, they have positioned themselves as market leaders and redefined the value that people receive from their product or service.
Let’s look at why FastCompany recognized some of these companies as the best innovators, starting with the top three:
- Apple: For redefining what cell phones can and can’t do, and how people will interact with their phones (through Siri technology). And for constantly introducing new products/technologies that force others to play catch-up.
- Facebook: For continually finding new ways for people to share information with each other.
- Google: For making the transition from a single product into a diversified web power.
To see how innovation can happen in many different ways, consider some of the names you might not expect to find on the list:
- NFL: For the willingness of team owners to push the boundaries of the industry by establishing a venture fund that will allow them to invest in businesses that can “further incite fan passion.”
- Southern New Hampshire University: For using technology to transform a traditional bricks-and-mortar university into what may soon become the country’s largest online not-for-profit education system.
- UPS: For solving it customers’ biggest annoyance (missed deliveries) with the launch of MyChoice, a free service that gives consumers a day’s notice regarding the impending arrival of their package.
- Chipotle: For going against the industry norm by using fresh, sustainable foods (rather than processed ingredients), and for telling consumers the truth about what goes into their meals.
- Narayana Hrudayalaya Hospital: For bringing low-cost, high-quality health care to more than a billion impoverished people in Southern India through a relentless focus on cutting costs and improving efficiencies.
- James Corner Field Operations: For redefining the boundaries of landscape architecture to create “intimate green spaces out of industrial urban blight.”
- LegalZoom: For disrupting the legal industry through low-cost online products and services, including new online consulting services.
Many companies on the list have vast resources to fuel their innovation efforts. But innovation doesn’t necessarily require deep pockets or huge R&D departments. What it does require is thinking differently.
From time to time, pause for a moment to ask questions like:
- In our business/industry, what have we “always done this way?”
- What have we gotten so comfortable with that we stopped looking for new and different ways to approach it?
- Why do we always do it that way?
- How can we do it faster, better, or cheaper?
- What unsolved problems or unmet needs do our customers have?
- Who in our industry is doing anything about those problems?
- How could we solve them in a way nobody has ever done before?
Answer these questions in a meaningful way and you might just find your company on someone’s top innovator’s list.