google logoAbout time for some good news. Here are ten stand-out companies which, in the midst of a miserly, risk-averse horde of unimaginative, uninnovative companies in almost every sector of the economy, we should be celebrating. While the anorexia-crazed corporatist giants believe the best way to deal with innovation is to shut it down by patenting everything and suing every upstart into oblivion, these ten companies are setting the example to show how business should be capitalizing on the market, not cornering it:

Most Innovative Media Company: Fast Company. The December ‘Creativity Edition’ of Fast Company magazine is now online, and I’d encourage you to read it, cover to cover, and then buy yourself and a friend a subscription to this magazine, which towers above its competition. In my opinion there are only three indispensable magazines on the market: Fast Company, The New Yorker, and Consumer Reports. The gang at fast company are not only great thinkers, they are constantly thinking ahead.

Most Innovative Manufacturer: WL Gore. The makers of Gore-Tex and a lot of stunningly inventive medical products you’ve probably never heard of. Fast Company’s complete story on the company is available in pdf form here. I mentioned an earlier study on this company last spring. Best takeaway: The six secrets of Gore’s innovation success:

  • The Power of Small Teams: Gore tries to keep its teams small (and caps even its manufacturing plants at 200 people). That way, everyone can get to know one another and work together with minimal rules, as though they were a task force tackling a crisis.
  • No Ranks, No Titles, No Bosses: Associates (employees) select mentors, they don’t have bosses. Associates decide for themselves what new commitments to take on. Committees evaluate an associate’s contribution and decide on compensation. There are no standardized job descriptions or categories.
  • Take the Long View: Gore is impatient with the status quo but patient about the time — often years, sometimes decades — it takes to develop revolutionary products and bring them to market.
  • Make Time for Face Time: There’s no hierarchical chain of command; anyone in the company can talk to anyone else. Gore discourages memos and prefers in-person communication to email.
  • Lead by Leading: Associates spend 10% of their time pursuing speculative new ideas. Anyone is free to launch a project and be a leader, so long as they have the passion and ideas to attract followers. Many of Gore’s breakthroughs started with one person acting on his or her own initiative, and developed as colleagues helped in their spare time.
  • Celebrate Failure: Don’t stigmatize it. When a project doesn’t work out and the team kills it, they celebrate with beer or champagne.

Most Innovative Software Company: Google. I reported earlier on Google Desktop and Picasa, but these guys never rest on their laurels. Take a look at Google Local, which allows you to find the closest Thai restaurant or tailor to you, even if you live out in the boonies like me. Or look at Google Keyhole, a subscription service that allows you to use animation to zoom in and out of annotated aerial photographs, taking you by movie camera anywhere in the world you want to go. Or try Google Alerts, which will send you an e-mail whenever new stories show up anywhere on the web that contain your selected keywords. And there’s more — browse the entire Google Labs to see what’s coming next. These guys are the energizer bunnies of innovation.

Most Innovative Hardware Company: Apple. With the iPod, Apple has reaffirmed its ability to create and reinvent whole hardware product categories.

Most Innovative Financial Organization: ING. The Dutch company that realized you don’t need offices to run a bank has got the big banks, and now the big insurance companies, running scared. They offer better rates, minimal bureaucracy, by simply thinking smarter and constantly challenging all the established rules in the financial services industry.

Most Innovative Retailer: eBay. You know what these guys have done. Long after Wal-Mart is disgraced for having destroyed so many jobs and ruined so many companies in the race for the bottom, eBay will be remembered as the real innovators in retailing.

Best Blockbuster Idea Incubator: The New Yorker. This is the company that nurtures people like Malcolm Gladwell (The Tipping Point) and James Surowiecki (The Wisdom of Crowds). Who would have thought you could make money by paying people to just think about great, world-changing ideas?

Most Innovative Business Advisor: Charles Handy would be my choice, though Clay Christensen, Peter Drucker, Gary Hamel and Michael Schrage are pretty good too.

Best Website for Creativity-Boosting: IdeaChampions. If giving things away free is its own reward, Mitch Ditkoff and the crew at IdeaChampions should be very wealthy. This little company’s website is a goldmine of good ideas and tools that spark creativity and innovation. If you can’t afford to hire them, bookmark their site and visit often. If you can afford to hire them, do. And you can help them out by participating in this just-for-fun quiz.

Most Socially & Environmentally Responsible Innovator: Patagonia. This is a company that developed a process that recycles the plastic in discarded soda bottles to make state-of-the-art clothing. And they donate 10% of profits to environmental causes that they’re deeply involved in. In more ways than one, they make you feel warm all over.

A few other companies, like Amazon, Sony, and 3M would have made the list, but unfortunately they’re on the Boycott List. Ingenuity must be tempered by responsibility.

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  1. Aleah says:

    Amazing blog, by the way. Have you seen Patagonia owner’s Don’t Buy This Shirt Unless You Need It PDF on Change This yet? Wonderful company.

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Excellent, Aleah. Thanks for this. I’m glad to see that Seth’s ‘Change This’ is getting such good content. I would have liked to see more in the Manifesto under Take Action, though.

  3. You forgot :-) about the solar roof tiles/shingles manufacturers. There isn’t much of a choice yet. If you have extra investment money, this is the place to put it because you’ll be buying some of this same product a little later.I think your name showed up in my last couple of blogs Dave. Uh oh.aloha, best regards

  4. Rob Paterson says:

    My kind of list DaveIf I forget – have a very happy Christmas – the days get longer next week

  5. Jon Husband says:

    Great list, Dave. And I think you know Charles Handy has been a major inspiration for me for years now.

  6. Derek says:

    I am continually amazed at how people get caught up in the “press” which happens to diverge so much from “reality”. WL Gore actually has their medical manufacturing facilities here in Flagstaff, and the reports from friends and family members about the organizational structure are completely opposite from the “press”. As the “Tyranny of Structurelessness” points out, you will always have a power structure. By declaring that you don’t have a formal one, you just allow an invisible buddy network to take the primary role. Combined with private ownership and a lack of accountability, you have plant leadership that in some cases has no capability to lead, nor any qualification other than being “buddies” with others in power. For technical professionals looking for a career, it is a stressful sweatshop at best, chewing up their lives with crises apon crises, with their ideas constantly ignored, and for very little pay (Gore pays significantly below market rates because Flagstaff is such a desirable place to live).Anyone who has survived the regular cullings, and the personality disorders of leadership; is still looking for alternative employment. In fact quite a large number of them leave Gore to start their own businesses (which unfortunately fail most of the time).

  7. michael schrage says:

    re: the list – i’m flattered; and provoked

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