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How The Smartest Minds Defy Conventional Thinking

When it comes to world-changing ideas in business, vision must be married to practicality.

How The Smartest Minds Defy Conventional Thinking

Better together: WeWork has attracted more than 50,000 members to its vision of communal work spaces.

[Photo: Celine Grouard for Fast Company]

If you believe in fate, there are signs that ride-sharing company Lyft has destiny on its side in its competition with Uber. After all, before Lyft’s two founders ever met, one of them had launched a company called Zimride; the other founder happened to be named Zimmer. They have become best friends, with weddings and children’s births coinciding with key moments in the company’s history. Serendipity seems to arrive at opportune moments.

But luck is not a business strategy, and fortunately for Lyft, neither of its founders is waiting for the world to come to them. Instead, as editor-at-large Rick Tetzeli reports in Lyft has maintained its relevance in an Uber-obsessed culture by focusing on the details it can control. What animates the company is a breathtaking idea: that ride sharing can radically change our transportation system, climate-change footprint, and even the way people interact. But what dictates its actions—including a slew of new partnerships with the likes of Starbucks and GM—is actually pragmatism.

Bold ideas get tossed around a lot (particularly during a presidential election season), but turning them into reality requires more than mystical sleight of hand. This month’s cover story about CEO Larry Page’s reconfig­uring of Google into Alphabet is a prime example. Page has taken one of the most successful enterprises of all time and radically restructured it. As we explain in Alphabet faces some devilishly complicated challenges, in part because it seeks to provoke Olympian change—in communications, health care, and more. To understand Page’s solution, we’ve broken it down into pieces, using as analogies the challenges faced (and posed) by companies from Apple to Nike. What this analysis reveals is how inspired and targeted Alphabet’s new structure is.

It’s hard to overstate how difficult it is for any leader or organization to defy conventional thinking and instead give rope to a truly creative idea. And yet that’s exactly what is required to generate world-changing impact. Members’ cultlike enthusiasm for WeWork took real estate and workplace experts by surprise (see "Adam Neumann's $16 Billion Neo-Utopian Play To Turn WeWork Into WeWorld"). Unconventional restaurants are remaking expectations around what and how we eat (see "9 People Changing Food").

Sometimes success requires more than one leap of faith. Google had made plenty of jumps (buying YouTube, launching Android) before Alphabet came along. Lyft, too, has had to exercise continued creativity, particularly as rival Uber built a seemingly insurmountable lead in customers, funding, brand recognition, and more. What Lyft has done, though, is find areas where it has its own advantages and aggressively leaned into those opportunities. That is no guarantee that Lyft will ultimately succeed. But by taking its own shot, defining success in its own distinctive way, Lyft at least has a chance to participate in and advance that breakthrough idea at the heart of its enterprise. It’s one more vote of confidence for the road less traveled.

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

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