It’s not about the perks.
For Fast Company‘s inaugural Best Workplaces for Innovators list, we set out to find companies that empower all employees—not just top executives, scientists, or coders—to create new products, improve operations, and take risks. We searched for businesses where innovation isn’t just a buzzword but a part of the value system and culture.
The result is an authoritative guide to the professional ecosystems where innovators and would-be innovators can thrive. It includes several of the giants and stalwarts that you might expect (Amazon, Salesforce, 3M) and numerous surprises, such as yogurt maker Chobani and Versa, an Australian marketing agency.
The need to develop a culture that fosters inventive thinking has never been more urgent, says Paul Daugherty, chief technology and innovation officer at Accenture, and one of the experts we tapped to help judge the entries. (Accenture served as Fast Company‘s research partner for the list.) Many companies tout their creative chops as a way to attract scarce talent, but not all deliver. “People are going to go where they feel innovation is valued,” he says.
Fast Company‘s list, unlike other “best workplaces” rankings you’ll see in the media, isn’t a catalog of companies offering the choicest freebies or the most comprehensive benefits—although you’ll find plenty of great snacks and generous leave policies at many of the organizations included. Instead, we honor businesses doing things like offering people time to pursue bold projects (both within and outside their main jobs), configuring work spaces in a way that has led to greater collaboration across teams, putting premiums on inclusivity, and giving people room to fail. Employees—from entry-level hires to senior leadership—have an opportunity to make a real difference in these kinds of environments. And that may be the best perk of all. — Stephanie Mehta
The manufacturing conglomerate famous for Post-it Notes and Scotch tape earns about 3,000 patents every year and encourages its 91,000 employees to devote 15% of working time to projects outside the normal scope of their jobs.
Santa Monica, CA
The video-game publisher (World of Warcraft, Candy Crush, Call of Duty) and esports pioneer (Overwatch League) encourages employees to participate in a semiannual challenge called the 5×5 Innovation Challenge, a tournament in which teams of five people are given five weeks and a $5,000 research budget to create a pitch to address a real company challenge, such as enhancing a key franchise.
One way Amazon cultivates ideas from more than 600,000 employees is via a process called “working backwards”: Any employee with a big idea is encouraged to create a plan that includes a customer-impact statement, a mock press release, key questions, and perspectives from different business areas. It’s how site features such as Prime Now and AmazonSmile began.
Santa Clara, CA
AMD, a semiconductor company, uses “leapfrog teams”—discrete groups of engineers who simultaneously work on successive generations of core chip designs—to ensure the consistent communication, preservation of knowledge, and enforcement of best practices that can help spur innovation.
A small group of Ansys developers had an idea: Use graphics processing units rather than slower conventional central processing units for the company’s core software product. Management gave them dedicated working space, servers, and relief from their normal duties. Discovery Live launched last year—the first engineering software that provides real-time physics simulation and geometry editing.
The cybersecurity firm, which deploys technology to help businesses detect and respond to attacks, assigns a “champion” to mentor each new hire, boasts a 93% annual employee-retention rate, and reinvests one-third of revenues into research and development.
The robotic-process automation company makes its proprietary software and training materials available to universities (including Texas A&M, Aditya Engineering College, and the University of Manchester), and in January opened a new artificial intelligence lab in its London facility.
Three times a year, the Swedish creative agency assigns one team member from each of its five global offices to spend several days in the company’s Barcelona R&D lab to work on a custom brief designed around a significant challenge, such as creating a new application for Google’s AR Core product.
To reduce inefficiencies and increase collaboration, the private yogurt company brought 90% of its agency work (including advertising, PR, design, consumer research, and retail execution) in-house, creating a 359-person department that operates under one budget. The change allowed Chobani to take its Less Sugar Greek Yogurt product from concept to stores in less than six months.
Dedicated to bringing safe drinking water to developing countries, Charity: Water secures donations through creative storytelling. Employees have rigged GoPro cameras to capture the perspective of an Ethiopian child, and surrounded guests at the company’s annual fundraiser with a wraparound, football-field-size LED screen to show a woman making her daily trek to a distant well.
To create products that improve website security and performance, Cloudflare’s R&D lab incubates new ideas through rapid iteration. Cloudflare also conducts two-week experiments called “spikes”: Employees test new ideas to determine whether they warrant further investment. In 2018, the company launched eight new products and services, including 126.96.36.199, which provides consumers with faster and more secure internet connections.
Real estate technology company Compass runs on a proprietary tech platform that elicits internal feedback through a digital forum that allows up and down voting from all of its agents and employees. Suggestions that make it to the top of the leaderboard become eligible for some of the hundreds of millions in funding the company has committed to developing new initiatives, such as health insurance for agents.
The language-learning platform has a website section, Duolingo Labs, that allows employees and the site’s 300 million global users to suggest enhancements for projects in development, such as a Spanish podcast that was downloaded more than 8 million times last year, topping the education category on Apple Podcasts.
Recently acquired by Publicis, the marketing company has an “automate to innovate” ethos underlying proprietary technologies like Grasshopper, which translates digital ad campaign assets into fully formatted interactive ad units of all sizes, reducing the number of hours digital producers spend formatting by nearly 400% per campaign.
The three-year-old primary-care practice, which provides services for a monthly fee, pairs engineers with physicians to develop new, advanced medical technology.
South San Francisco
The biotech firm employs more than 120 postdoctoral fellows engaged in basic discovery research and generates about 350 articles each year in peer-reviewed journals. Its innovation fund and incubator support employees with novel ideas that aren’t necessarily being explored by the company, such as new drug-delivery systems or applying AI to drug design.
The seven-year-old database company’s main product, InfluxDB, is an open-source technology designed to manage and store massive volumes of time-stamped data. To ensure effective communication with a largely remote engineering staff, InfluxData applies the same open-source ethos of transparency: All trainings, documentation, and presentations are available via its YouTube channel, blog posts, and webinars on the company’s site.
Mountain View, CA
The company behind QuickBooks, TurboTax, and Mint supports employees developing new ideas for communities that most need them. Through a project called Mission Hope, Intuit’s customer-success team is opening new customer service call centers in local economies that have experienced serious downturns. In the past two years, the initiative created more than 900 jobs in Wise, Virginia, and Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Intuit has recently announced a third center (in Bluefield, West Virginia).
The commercial real estate services firm built its own cloud-based mobile tool (Idea Stream) to allow all 91,000 global employees to share ideas, best practices, and solutions. All entries are vetted by subject-matter experts and include feedback from employees and examples of client implementations.
Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory
Associates and fellows at the state-of-the-art research complex have 24/7 access to 3D printing, a VR/AR room, and an electronics workbench; a centralized database keeps researchers abreast of new developments in other labs. Last year, the APL reported 419 new inventions and 30 new patents.
Johnson & Johnson
New Brunswick, NJ
Beginning as a one-off presentation that attracted 60 people in 2011, TEDxJNJ has evolved into an ongoing vehicle for employees at the CPG/pharma giant to share experiences, information, and points of view, with 76 events in 19 countries yielding more than 500 speaker videos.
The independent health-marketing and commercialization agency uses its innovation lab to experiment with emerging tech platforms. In the six years since it began operating, Klick Labs has produced a patent-pending technology that records and transmits Parkinson’s tremors in real time and a patented VR app that offers patients 3D visual perspectives on their internal medical conditions. Klick’s software company, Sensei Labs, also developed an enterprise-level collaborative work-management platform.
Six years ago, executives at the workforce-management software company sequestered a team of 25 to reinvent Kronos’s core product. That group, dubbed “Project Falcon,” eventually swelled to 600 and created a new cloud-based workforce-management platform called Workforce Dimensions, which has helped drive up company revenue by 38%.
Employee volunteers at the legal and professional services provider worked closely with the International Bar Association to develop the eyeWitness to Atrocities app, the first-ever smartphone app designed to document human rights abuses, marking and safeguarding images so they can be entered as evidence in court.
The 70-person cloud and mobile software company acts “as a virtual VC,” helping engineers learn how the software business works beyond technological development. In its first year, the program has spawned three subsidiary corporations focused on software, security, and marketplaces for healthcare and other industries.
The 110-year-old cosmetics maker, which has an internal technology incubator and more than 4,000 employees dedicated full-time to research and innovation, registered 505 patents in 2018. Last November, it became the first beauty company to launch a tech product, My Skin Track UV, a battery-free wearable UV sensor, sold exclusively through Apple.
In 2018, the drugmaker spent nearly $10 billion on R&D. This year, the company announced an additional five-year, $16 billion investment in projects to improve development, capabilities, and innovations. Its ventures fund has committed more than $85 million toward treatments for a variety of conditions, including neurodegenerative disorders, cancer, and resistant bacterial infections.
The banking company’s Technology Innovation Office funds promising employee projects in key areas, including artificial intelligence, data analytics, and fintech, and offers an accelerator program to expedite the patent-filing process. Its Innovation Lab provides a digital “sandbox” environment where any employee can experiment with code, software, and other technologies.
Mountain View, CA
Mozilla has a tradition of building open-source technologies, allowing any user to access and use and modify its code. The company has awarded $6.4 million to universities, research nonprofits, and other noncommercial partners since 2015, with its Open Innovation team advising, financing, and collaborating on products that keep the internet “safe, open,and accessible to all as it evolves.”
The shopping-tech startup is mining data in a way that’s useful (rather than intrusive) for the consumer, creating the world’s largest non-Amazon database of product SKUs linked to expert reviews. Narrativ employs machine learning to match products with the expert content written about them. The company cites its focus on innovation as the main reason it boasted a 100% retention rate in its engineering group in 2018.
Notable uses its automated laboratory and artificial intelligence to predict how cancer cells will react to drugs. The company brings together engineers, doctors, scientists, and healthcare experts to inform its product and has large-scale partnerships with pharmaceutical companies, publicly traded biotech startups, and research institutions like MD Anderson Cancer Center and Stanford.
OSF Global Services
At OSF Global Services, a Canadian company that implements custom commerce platforms, any employee can submit a proposal to the Product Lab and, if approved, receive funding and resources to develop it. Incentives are shared by the idea’s originator and the team that’s assigned to help them build it. In the program’s three years, OSF has launched 28 new products, including 9 in 2018 alone.
Cloud-based software maker Pivotal requires all of its programmers to write software in pairs. This, the company says, motivates employees to “push each other to meet goals,” while also providing a safety net to test, experiment, and fix code together. Partners rotate and work within various larger teams to ensure that everyone in the company is exposed to new perspectives regularly.
Procter & Gamble
Here’s how the CPG giant’s GrowthWorks program functions: After conducting consumer research to identify a problem, a small team prototypes and tests a solution on a metered-funding basis, earning additional investment upon reaching pre-established milestones. GrowthWorks currently has more than 130 experiments running, including 10 that have launched.
Myanmar-based not-for-profit Proximity Designs works with rural farmers in the long-isolated country. The company has spent more than $1 million in agricultural research over the past five years. Employees from all departments pursue research in the field, conducting one-on-one interviews, focus-group surveys, and crop studies.
At science-based organizations, employees typically need a PhD to be promoted from research associate to staff scientist. Biotechnology company Regeneron, however, tracks and rewards practical training as research associates accumulate it, recognizing the value of real-world, on-the-job experience.
To get acclimated, new employees at the used-musical-instrument marketplace enter a program called the Contest: Each employee is given $1,000 and five weeks to buy and sell as many guitar pedals as they can on the website, using whatever skills they have, whether through beautiful design or effective keywords. The most successful win cash prizes.
Century-old Rockwell Automation recently added an electric-vehicle research center that will be accessible from anywhere in the world through augmented reality. Company leaders post “wanted” ads for solutions that any self-formed team within Rockwell can tackle and be rewarded for developing.
Rubikloud Technologies combines retail data with machine learning and artificial intelligence to help businesses market and manage customer experiences. The company has a close relationship with the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, where members of Rubikloud’s team work directly with PhD candidates to research and solve machine-learning and data-science issues in Rubikloud’s products.
Employees on Salesforce’s technology and product team can move to another group within the department, gaining exposure to a totally new range of technologies and customers. Nearly 30% of the open jobs in Technology and Product are filled via internal transfers.
Employees at software company SAS give presentations meant to inspire and motivate their peers. The most effective presenters are featured on the main stage at the company’s annual conference and represent the company externally. One presenter, who gave a talk about transforming special education through AI and language analytics, now sits on the board of a national association for children with special needs.
Sephora Accelerate, an incubation program, is exclusively for female founders in beauty; it includes a weeklong business boot camp, one-on-one mentoring from Sephora partners and leaders, grants, and a demo day where founders get the opportunity to present their companies to venture partners and Sephora’s senior team.
Industrial manufacturer Siemens holds more than 15,000 patents in the United States alone, with more than 43,000 R&D-focused employees worldwide. Its Quickstarter program allows Siemens employees to independently (and democratically) allocate company money to support the development of colleagues’ ideas.
At Sonatype, which makes products that help developers and security professionals manage open-source code, designated “innovation days” take place every other week, allowing employees to explore and tinker. Last year, employees worked on 511 projects stemming from the program.
Building technology to defend children against sexual abuse, nonprofit Thorn collaborates with law enforcement, NGOs, governments, and private-sector partners. With fewer than 50 employees, Thorn has successfully identified more than 9,000 child victims across 35 countries, in part due to partnerships with tech giants such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter, which provide resources, technology, and expertise. A recent partnership with Google.org, for example, included integrating full-time Google engineers into Thorn’s product team for a six-month fellowship.
The provider of enterprise cloud applications for finance and HR holds a semi-annual Spelunking Conference, where employees present lessons gleaned from project failures. The company plows more than 30% of revenue back into R&D and has a 40-person research team focused on incubating new products.
The digital agency develops voice-activation tools for brands such as Coca-Cola, Domino’s, Pfizer, and the Red Cross. The company runs an entrepreneurship program for employees, which in just two years has already spawned two new companies: Code Like a Girl and Initio Insurance.
The Dutch file-transfer company does more than just nod to research suggesting clear links between diversity and innovation: It boasts an even 50-50 gender split among employees who hail from 38 countries. All of them get one full “Innovation Friday” each month to work on a project of their choosing, some of which (such as a mobile uploader) have been incorporated into the company’s suite of creative workflow tools.
Workiva attributes the success of its cloud-based data-management tools (more than 75% of Fortune 500 companies use them) to a highly collaborative product-development process: The R&D groups work closely with finance, accounting, and operations teams to coordinate requirements, while developers and product managers meet regularly with customers throughout a product’s life cycle.
Originally a spin-off of Nathan Myhrvold’s Intellectual Ventures, Xinova has created a network of more than 12,000 innovators in 118 countries that clients can tap into as an extension of their own R&D. This brain trust helps develop commercial solutions to particular technical challenges, and network members whose ideas are adopted earn cash, royalties, and equity.
More than 360 companies applied between January 29 and March 22, 2019, answering 10 questions about R&D investment and company-wide programs and processes. All applications were assessed separately by Fast Company editors and Accenture researchers, and the two sets of scores were then combined. The judging panel reviewed the 60 companies with the highest scores and recommended the final Top 50.
Laszlo Bock, cofounder and CEO, Humu
Susan Chambers, former executive vice president and chief human resources officer, Walmart
Saikat Chaudhuri, executive director, Mack Institute for Innovation Management, Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania
Paul Daugherty, chief technology and innovation officer, Accenture
Stephanie Mehta, editor-in-chief, Fast Company
Jeff Sanders, vice chairman and co-managing partner, global CEO and board practice, Heidrick & Struggles
Reshma Saujani, founder, Girls Who Code
Bill Taylor, cofounder, Fast Company
A version of this article appeared in the September 2019 issue of Fast Company magazine.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the home of the Rotman School of Management.