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

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

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.3, 4 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.

In 2014, Musk announced the company would allow anyone – competitors included – to use Tesla’s patented technology in hopes of accelerating development of electric vehicles.5 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

There’s a reason that Amazon topped Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies list in 2017. 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.7

Says Bezos, “Some companies have more of a conqueror mentality. If you look at their annual strategic plan, it starts with their three top enemies, who they’re going to crush this year. We have an explorer mentality, so we like to go pioneering."8

Amazon’s focus on invention keeps competitors at bay and the company growing fast: They hired 110,00 workers last year and now have more than 340,000 employees.9 How does that kind of colossal company scale innovation? They use a simple “two pizza rule.”

Paul Misener, VP of Innovation at Amazon, says the company has discovered that  “extra expertise doesn’t work” and larger groups end up creating more bureaucracy.10 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.”11  

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

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.”13 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.” 14

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.”15

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.16 This dedicated time to hack isn’t going anywhere; Facebook proudly held its 10-year anniversary of hackathons in San Francisco in 2017.17

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

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.19

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 learning resources where needed and staying true to their core mission to help teams.

Throughout Atlassian Summit, the company’s product leaders explain how their engineering teams work more efficiently by sharing knowledge and skills with each other. For example, developers do more than just code. They work in tandem with QA to help test code themselves – a nod to the company’s value “Be the change you seek.” And every engineer takes a rotation working on only fixing bugs.20

What’s the number one priority for developers who must flex new muscles in collaborative functions? Training. 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 growth of your employees like your company depends on it—because it does.

5. Concentrate on collaboration like 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 Mozilla. Or the United Nations. Both organizations – and many others – have adopted design sprints, which is Google’s way of solving challenges at scale.22, 23

“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.24 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.25

“It's really our responsibility to get the right people in the room,” says Ratna Desai, UX Lead at Google. “It’s so important to have that filter when you start a design sprint, because it really shapes the end deliverable. I've seen teams where that kind of team synergy and that diversity has led to true innovation.”

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

Learn, Succeed, 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 learn, adapt and change as technology advances and information grows out of date.

This agile way of being is most pronounced in a company’s employees. Companies that equip their teams to achieve greatness are the ones who have global impact. Leaders should ask themselves: do my teams know their 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. Dedicated learning enables your employees to develop skills that match their desire to innovate. With the right talent, your company will spend less time playing catch-up with competitors and more time succeeding in changing the world.