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Innovation playbook: 5 traits of wildly successful tech companies you can adopt today

"Innovation isn't random."

Clayton M. Christensen, Professor, Author and Father of "Disruption"

Today’s top technology companies shine with what Forbes calls an “innovation premium”—additional value they generate in the stock market solely because of their reputation for disruption.(1)

They operate with a clearly articulated vision that drives every action and informs every decision. One that’s understood across all levels of the organization and embodied by each employee. And most of the time that vision isn’t about a simple app or social network.

These companies set out to change the world. And they succeed.

How do they do it? Tech titans know that it takes an innovative, agile work environment and culture to turn their ambitious visions into reality. They use technology to answer big questions and adapt quickly. They build teams that can outthink and outwork entire industries. And they solve problems in ways no one else has thought of, making all of our lives better in the process. 

You know these names—they’re impossible to miss—and you’ll probably recognize their secrets to success aren’t so secret after all. Any company, regardless of industry, can adopt these innovative strategies and be on their way to accelerating market leadership.

1. Create a movement from your business model like Tesla

“I don't create companies for the sake of creating companies, but to get things done.”

Elon Musk, Co-Founder and CEO of Tesla

What’s in a name? Ask Tesla, which officially dropped “Motors” from its name in February 2017. The change is a better reflection of their simple yet very ambitious mission: To accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.

Tesla’s mission is at the heart of every business move, and those efforts extend well beyond cars. When Musk released a new version of his now-famous-master-plan, he used the company mission to justify what many considered a risky acquisition of SolarCity and officially pursuing energy storage.(2,3) His blog post explained: 

“The point of all this was, and remains, accelerating the advent of sustainable energy, so that we can imagine far into the future and life is still good.”

Musk isn’t just improving the future by making the seemingly impossible probable; he’s open sourcing it.

Musk announced the company would allow anyone—competitors included—to use Tesla’s patented technology in hopes of accelerating development of electric vehicles, and continues to uphold this commitment to the company’s mission.(4) The declaration, while uncommon, isn’t surprising coming from a CEO leading a deeply purpose-driven company. 

The takeaway: Leaders inspire when they focus their organizations on a crystal-clear mission and pivot the business accordingly.

2. Adopt an explorer’s mentality like Amazon

“If the size of your failures isn’t growing, you’re not going to be inventing at a size that can actually move the needle.”

Jeff Bezos, Founder and CEO of Amazon

There’s a reason that Amazon topped Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies list for several years. They’re in constant innovation mode. With the customer experience as their North Star, employees are free—and encouraged—to risk failure until the right solution is found.(5) 

Bezos says much of Amazon’s success comes from its future-focused mindset. “A lot of invention doesn’t work. If you’re going to invent, it means you’re going to experiment, so you have to think long-term.”(6)

Amazon’s focus on invention keeps competitors at bay and the company growing fast: They hired 96,700 workers in the third quarter of 2019 alone and now have more than 750,000 employees.(7) How does that kind of colossal company scale innovation? They use a simple “two pizza rule.”

Bezos introduced the two-pizza rule to the company early on. The purpose? Efficiency and scalability. Smaller teams spend less time managing house cleaning and more time getting things done.(8) Paul Misener, VP of Global Innovation Policy and Communications at Amazon, says the company discovered that “extra expertise doesn’t work” and larger groups end up creating more bureaucracy.(9) Teams working on a problem are kept small—small enough they can be fed by two pizzas, so they can “innovate and test their visions independently of everyone else.”

The takeaway: For agility and business growth, build small, nimble teams that feel safe taking risks in the name of inventiveness.

3. Move as fast as Facebook

“We have the words 'Done is better than perfect' painted on our walls to remind ourselves to always keep shipping.”

Mark Zuckerberg, Co-Founder and CEO of Facebook

Social media giant Facebook has used speed to thrive in their competitive market. It’s fostered in many ways—from intense onboarding bootcamps for new hires to a deeply held commitment to ship code everyday. The mantra to “move fast and break things” is a phrase synonymous with Zuckerberg’s management approach and the founding of Facebook itself.

Today, their engineers are less about breaking things and more about “stable infrastructure.”(10) But the edict to move fast remains: it’s still one of Facebook’s five core values. Prospective applicants are told the company is “less afraid of making mistakes than we are of losing opportunities by moving too slowly.”(11)

The acute sense of speed reinforces a philosophy Zuckerberg calls the “Hacker Way.”

Hacking is a culture built on continuous improvement and individual ownership where engineering organizations remain relatively flat and employees understand that “nothing at Facebook is someone else’s problem.”(12)

Nowhere is this environment more pronounced than in the nocturnal coding marathons where employees join forces to ship new products in a short amount of time. Facebook’s famous hackathons have produced well known features like Timeline, Chat and Safety Check.(13) This dedicated time to hack isn’t going anywhere; Facebook proudly continues to host hackathons.

The takeaway: Companies should support moving fast in a multitude of big and small ways and recognize that it takes each team member moving quickly to stay ahead.

4. Empower people like Atlassian

“Phenomenal products are usually built by a phenomenal team.”

Michael Cannon-Brookes, Co-Founder and CEO of Atlassian

It’s difficult to imagine now, but culture-obsessed co-founders Cannon-Brookes and Scott Farquhar initially put off creating company values. Poor hiring choices at a critical business stage forced the pair to evaluate the kind of people they wanted to attract to the company.(14)

Since then, the software darling has been laser focused on hiring and developing the best talent in the industry. They do this by encouraging cross-functional roles, providing tools and resources where needed and staying true to their core mission to help teams.

Atlassian has several ways it develops and strengthens its teams. The company runs several programs to create a path for team members to advance, including its Associate Product Manager Program, which is designed to attract and and grow the best talent.(15) Each year, the company also hosts a multi-day internal conference: Product Craft. The conference—a mix of external speakers, customer and partner panels and presentations by internal employees—gives team members a chance to get closer to the problem the company is solving, strengthen team bonds and improve their craft.(16)

What’s the number one priority for individual contributors who must flex new muscles in collaborative functions? Skills. QA teams, developers and designers learn from each other to develop skills for optimal teamwork. These workshops are followed by thorough documentation, much of which can be accessed on their website for free by other teams looking to do the same.

The takeaway: Build a healthy culture and invest in the skills of your employees like your company depends on it—because it does.

5. Concentrate on collaboration like Google

“If you can run the company a bit more collaboratively, you get a better result, because you have more bandwidth and checking and balancing going on.”

Larry Page, Co-Founder and Board Member of Google

It flies in the face of conventional thinking, but sometimes getting people in a room to just talk about ideas yields the most productivity. Just ask Nest. Or the United Nations. Both organizations—and many others—have adopted design sprints, which is Google’s way of solving challenges at scale.)

“Sprint” is a loaded term in the engineering world. It means different things to different people. But Googlers have established their own form of sprint-style teamwork to keep pace with technology and product development today.

A design sprint at Google is a process for answering critical business questions with 5 distinct phases: Understand, Sketch, Decide, Prototype, and Validate.(17) Teams are committed to solving their problem with a design in hand in 5 days or less. Design sprints are common for product features, but the company has also used the framework to improve their hiring process and map annual goals.

The success of design sprints relies heavily on cross-functional teams with diversity in background and skills being paramount. While some stakeholders may groan at the thought of working with people outside their departments, months of development can be condensed in a short meeting done right.(18) And while processes like this foster collaboration and innovation, it’s up to the leader to make sure they get the right people in the room and make diversity a priority. The makeup of the team ultimately shapes the outcome. 

The takeaway: Leverage diverse teams to collectively problem solve and create better products and experiences in the process.

Skill up, innovative, repeat

While the world’s greatest tech companies thrive in areas like collaboration, speed and risk-taking, no single company claims to have it all figured out. And therein lies a key secret: Successful organizations continue to get clear on goals, acquire new skills, and evolve as technology advances. 

Companies that equip their teams to achieve greatness are the ones who have global impact. Leaders should continually ask themselves: Do my teams know our larger goals? Are they given the time to innovate? Are their skills keeping pace with technology?

If the answers to these questions are no, consider tactics from technology’s heavy-hitters. And create space for your teams to develop new skills and ways of working that match your commitment to innovation. With the right skills, your company will spend less time playing catch-up with competitors and more time succeeding in changing the world.