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15 Lessons Of Innovation For 2016

What we learned this year while building our list of the best and brightest.

15 Lessons Of Innovation For 2016

The new playbook: Mobile video company Hudl is helping both professional teams and high schools like Georgia’s Jonesboro Cardinals (in white) to step up their play with its game-film software and apps.

[Photo: Emiliano Granado]

When we set out to build this year’s list of the World’s Most Innovative Companies, we didn’t begin with macroeconomic parameters. Instead our reporting team dug into details on thousands of companies around the globe. Our axiom has always been that whatever challenges may be buffeting business—political uncertainty, market instability, international unrest—there are always pockets of extraordinary achievement. That is what we were looking to uncover.

And we were inspired by what we found. Our top 50 companies includes only six repeats from a year ago, underscoring the dynamism of the innovation landscape. Our top 10 lists spotlight leaders in more than 20 different sectors, from architecture to virtual reality, China to India. We partnered for the first time with data-analysis outfit Quid, whose machine-intelligence engine helped us identify a broader pool of candidates; that breadth reinforced our conviction that a new wave of business practices is increasingly taking hold across the world.

Many lessons are embedded in the stories of success within our Most Innovative Companies package; I’ve pulled out 15 here. One overarching conclusion: Global innovation is more robust than ever.

1. Organizations Can Learn

The top two companies on this year’s list, BuzzFeed (No. 1) and Facebook (No. 2), have thrived by embracing constant evolution in their products and in their processes. BuzzFeed’s video teams are reorganized every three months; the native ad programs it creates for marketers evolve through iterative testing; and new data metrics like viral lift are developed, scrutinized, and tweaked. All that motion can seem messy, but it breeds a culture of curiosity and learning, and, as CEOs Jonah Peretti and Mark Zuckerberg clearly demonstrate, culture is strategy.

2. Amappooglebook Leads The Way

The four titans of tech continue to set the standard for relentless progress and ambition within the last year. Amazon (No. 6) has deepened its dominance of e-commerce and web services while pressing into entertainment and electronics—and making Amazon Prime the must-have membership of the modern age. Apple (No. 7) launched a new watch, a new music service, new phones, new tablets, new stores—it’s a breathless pace. Google’s reorientation as Alphabet (No. 8) underscores its ambition to do more than just "organize all the world’s information," as it moves beyond its dominance in media to target eradicating disease, self-driving cars, and so forth. Along with Facebook, the three As are determined to be disrupters, and they collectively push everyone else—and one another—to adopt an ever-faster metabolism.

Ripe for reconstruction: Relentlessly rethinking its menu is in Taco Bell’s DNA.Photo: Sarah Illenberger

3. Tech Has No Monopoly On Speed

Fast food has never been faster than at today’s Taco Bell (No. 10). CEO Brian Niccol encourages his team to, as he puts it, "break a little glass." The Tex-Mex chain rolls out a new menu item every five weeks; the longevity of those products depends on their market success, a mirror of the test-and-iterate approach that drives Silicon Valley. Niccol wants to be at the forefront of everything, from ordering to delivery. All the activity has energized the company internally and made the brand more relevant to its target youth customers.

4. Streaming Can’t Be Stopped

Despite the financial limitations for music labels and artists (and holdouts like Taylor Swift and Adele), music consumers have shown their preference for Spotify (No. 19) and its kin. The next frontier—video—is crumbling as well. When Netflix (No. 5) opened its service in more than 130 countries in one day, it was simply reflecting an unstoppable train that runs from YouTube to The Man in the High Castle. When BuzzFeed delivers 2.5 billion video views a month and Facebook’s monthly video views jump from 1 billion to 8 billion in just over a year, the predilection for on-demand access is undeniable.

5. The Mobile Game Is Just Beginning

Those devices in our pockets aren’t just a challenge to traditional media. Nor is their impact restricted to booming platforms like Uber (No. 4), Airbnb (No. 31), and Snapchat (No. 38). New services, buoyed by rising design proficiency on mobile, are spawning entirely new markets. Robinhood (No. 11) has knifed into the investing world; Hudl (No. 35) is bringing its insights to more than 100,000 sports teams; Shyp (No. 46) will pick up and pack anything for you, at the push of a button.

6. Old companies Can Be Remade

Hasbro (No. 50) was launched almost a century ago in Providence, Rhode Island, yet that legacy hasn’t prevented it from unlocking new customers around the world. GE (No. 20) has embraced its 100-plus-year-old heritage of invention to find modern relevance. Even Vail Resorts (No. 44) has tapped new kinds of data to energize what seemed like a settled ski business.

7. Markets Are Everywhere . . .

When BuzzFeed went global, it was merely following the flow of its content. Universal (No. 12) reached $5 billion at the box office at a record pace, thanks to international audiences, and Farfetch (No. 23) unlocks a cross-border clientele for more than 300 fashion boutiques.

8. . . . But Location Doesn’t Matter

Noora Health (No. 45) was started at Stanford, has its design and engineering team in San Francisco, and its CEO splits her time between Boston and Bangalore, India. Cyanogen (No. 14) is based in California, but its consumer base is in Asia. The India-based mobile ad player InMobi (No. 15) dominates in China as well as at home.

9. Partnerships Have Power

Taco Bell found its new mojo after its wildly successful launch of Doritos Locos Tacos. BuzzFeed supercharged its reach when it embraced 30-plus outside platforms to distribute its content.

10. Communities Have Impact

Social media has made it easier than ever to express our individuality, fostering new communities like Black Lives Matter (No. 9), which, without a budget or advertising, has generated significant, tangible impact. In today’s world, the very concept of an enterprise is being redefined.

11. Bravery Is Required

CVS Health (No. 3) chose to forgo $2 billion in revenue from tobacco sales—a bold step given Wall Street’s increasingly activist tendencies—in quest of a longer-term vision: improving the health of its customers, not simply selling them products.

The perfect solution: Sama Group founder Leila Janah is reconfiguring the not-for-profit business model.Photo: Chloe Aftel

12. Mission Drives Change

Sama Group (No. 39) is rethinking how not-for-profits are funded, while venture firm Social Capital (No. 34) is re­imagining how funding should be deployed. John Oliver’s HBO show, produced by Sixteen String Jack (No. 29), has distinguished itself by attacking serious issues with humor.

13. The Doctor Is All In

Medical treatments are evolving as fast as communication technology; it’s just harder to see it. In the cancer arena alone, Novocure (No. 16) is deploying electricity, Amgen (No. 18) is unleashing viruses, and Bristol-Myers Squibb (No. 17) is enlisting a person’s own T cells to attack tumors and save lives.

14. Hype Fades, And Fads Mature

The buzz for wearable technology has abated, but Fitbit (No. 37) continues to broaden its user base. Drones are not just toys and are finding new applications across industries. What was niche is becoming mainstream, as Jaunt (No. 49) is discovering with virtual reality and as Riot Games (No. 22) has precipitated with e-sports.

15. There’s A New World Out There

If you connect all these new companies and changes—from Slack (No. 26) in the work world to Airbnb in travel, from Robinhood to BuzzFeed to Hudl, from Black Lives Matter to Riot Games to Uber—what emerges is a landscape very different from the one we grew up in. Self-driving cars. DNA–targeted treatments. The advances are inexorable, exciting, mind-blowing. Those who embrace these transitions (even at unlikely companies like Taco Bell) will have the tools to influence them. What could be more powerful than that?

Read more about our Most Innovative Companies of 2016

A version of this article appeared in the March 2016 issue of Fast Company magazine.

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