Six successful innovators and the lessons we should learn from them

These successful innovation leaders teach us to look beyond convention, redefine the status quo, exploit our assets, and much more.
Written by Patrick Gray, Contributor on
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It has been said that the heart and soul of a company is creativity and innovation, and history is littered with high-performing companies that lost their innovative edge, only to fade into irrelevance. Thankfully, history is also full of innovators that we can learn from, and we need not be the next Jobs, Gates, or Disney to apply their lessons to our own companies.

Seeing beyond the 'possible' - Walt Disney

On a recent family vacation to Disney World, I was reminded of the grand vision and optimism of Walt Disney, an innovator who's become somewhat taken for granted as of late. One trip to his theme parks, however, quickly reminds the visitor that this was a man who pushed the limits of entertainment, technology, education, and what was conventionally assumed to be possible. Far beyond cute cartoons, Disney turned a swamp in Florida into a theme park that defied every contemporary notion of what a theme park should be about. Disney said that "it's kind of fun to do the impossible." An ability to look beyond convention, critics, and technology is critical for fostering innovation.

Redefining the status quo - Elon Musk

Ask someone to think of an entrenched and immutable industry, and automotive would likely make a list of his or her top ten. With a century of history, entrenched competitors, and a business model that's changed very little, automotive would seem like the last industry a startup with an unconventional product would attempt to enter. However, Elon Musk and Tesla Motors made a bold entrance into this market with an unconventional product and a business model so different that it's faced everything from skepticism to legal challenges. Just because a system, process, competitor, or even a whole industry seems monolithic and immune to change doesn't make it so.

Reinventing yourself - Bill Gates

Bill Gates has a long track record in the technology sector, but he's also performed a dramatic and equally impressive 'second act' as one of the world's foremost advocates for everything from disease mitigation and elimination to education. While cynics might question Mr. Gates' motives, he's applied his wealth, intellect, and business savvy to seemingly intractable problems like eliminating polio and malaria. It's a bold maneuver that requires diligence and effective planning, but success and expertise in one industry don't preclude you from applying your talents in entirely different sphere.

Remember the end user - Steve Jobs

Much has been written about Steve Jobs and his knack for innovation, but one of his less discussed talents was a focus on the user of a product rather than the process or features delivered by the product. Traditional IT has long focused on process and features, but slowly the lessons Jobs pioneered are filtering into other areas. For an innovation to be successful, it must appeal to users who readily see it as superior to the current method for performing an action. Although they may not have articulated it as boldly as Jobs, most innovators innately connect to the consumers of their inventions, taking the extra effort to refine design and aesthetics so that their alternative seems natural and absolutely superior to the end user.

'Remix' techniques to innovate - Jessica Jackley and Matt Flannery

Kiva.org's co-founders took two techniques -- micro-lending and crowd sourcing -- and combined them to create a platform to help alleviate global poverty. Kiva allows the general public to contribute money toward small 'micro-loans' provided to people in the developing world to help start or grow a business, and ultimately increase their income. This unconventional application of financial industry techniques to poverty alleviation, combined with a web platform that made it easy for the average person to identify and fund a micro-loan, has created one of the most successful micro-lending platforms. Just because a technology or technique has never been applied to your industry, or was developed with a completely different intent, does not preclude it from being 'remixed' and applied to your company.

Exploit your assets - Marc Benioff

Marc Benioff created one of the world's most successful Software as a Service (SaaS) platforms with the CRM application Salesforce.com. The product revolutionized multiple industries, and redefined how companies use and pay for software. While continuing to improve the Salesforce platform and expanding the product line, Benioff also turned the core supporting architecture of Salesforce into a unique and compelling platform, offering the Salesforce backend to consumers in the form of the Force.com platform. Most businesses and even individuals have 'lazy assets' where the hard work of building and funding the asset has been completed, but is not being exploited to its full potential. Everything from decade-old ERP platforms to internal departments can be augmented, repurposed, or resold into interesting and innovative products.

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