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5 Things Never Heard at the Most Innovative Companies

Apr 30, 2013

This content was previously published on Forbes.com.

The most interesting thing about the Fast Company Most Innovative Companies 2013 list isn’t who is on it. It’s who isn’t.

Writing about the companies that had fallen off the list (and were obviously upset about it), Robert Safian, Editor of Fast Company magazine said, “It’s not that these businesses suddenly lost their mojo. But in a climate where the velocity of change is accelerating, these companies didn’t have a compelling-enough breakthrough for us to highlight.”

Safian’s remark perfectly illustrates the essential element required for survival in today’s economic environment. If you aren’t constantly innovating, your organization is most likely losing its edge. If your innovations are incremental – not big enough to move the needle – you’re still losing.

What do the companies on Fast Company’s list like Nike, Uber, and Pinterest have that others like Facebook and Twitter don’t? Better new products – which came from innovative ideas, that’s obvious. The mystery is where these ideas come from, how they rise to get noticed, and then how they are brought to market faster than anyone else. This list is a reminder that some of the companies we’ve historically associated with innovation because of their brand name (3M, Facebook, and Twitter) aren’t immune to losing their edge.

While people have spilled much ink on how to create innovation, I’d like to offer an easier way to get there – by process of elimination. Let’s start with five things you will NOT hear at the most innovative organizations. Be on alert for them; These are clear indicators that your company is losing its innovation “mojo.”

  1. “Can we do that?” Permission seekers are the mark of unclear company vision. If your company’s vision is clear enough, and has been communicated constantly and consistently, people do not come to you for permission, they come to show you what they’ve already done.
  2. “We can’t do that.” On the flip side of the previous comment, you find the limitations or barriers people have set up in reaction to the punishment they’ve experienced for prior failures. If your people see others try, fail, then get punished, you can guarantee that people will remain in the safe spot. No one is going to try to innovate, much less try anything remotely outside the box ever again.
  3. “We have to go through proper channels.” A mark of truly innovative companies is that the employees are well-networked, and they are constantly crossing silo walls to engage other departments, gather knowledge, or just get an outside opinion. Though one person may come up with the idea, nobody creates a great innovation solely on their own.
  4. “That’s good enough.” In many companies, once significant progress is made, momentum slows and eventually the project fails. This is one of the key reasons 70% of change efforts fail. Yes, it’s important to celebrate incremental wins, but in innovative companies, people don’t let up – they continue to focus on the final prize. This only comes from a relentless focus on winning.
  5. “That’s not my job.” This final phrase is the clearest indicator that people aren’t focused on the future of the company. If employees have a clear understanding of the vision set by leadership, no one will be talking in terms of their box on the org-chart. If you hear “us” and “them” language referring to internal teams, beware. Employees at innovative companies know it is always “our” job – we win together.

Stay on the alert to these dangerous phrases that might sneak into conversations in your organization. A great brand name no longer protects you from losing your edge. Remember Kodak?

Kathy Gersch is an Executive Vice President at Kotter International, a firm that helps leaders accelerate strategy implementation in their organizations, and is the Konosuke Matsushita Professor of Leadership, Emeritus, at Harvard Business School.

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Read Dr. Kotter’s new article, “Accelerate!,” featured in the Harvard Business Review, in which he explains how organizations can develop the agility required to succeed in today’s rapidly changing world.

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