This week, I received an email from Fast Company offering to propose who I believe should join their list of Most Innovative companies. In fact, every year, Forbes and Fast Company reveal their lists for the most innovative companies. These awards often get people in the non-listed organizations wondering – “How do they do it?” “What are they doing that I’m not?” Or worse – “I’m doing a lot of things like them, why aren’t we up there?” The super-status bestowed upon these companies creates lots of inspiration for trying out new techniques to promote innovation (typically followed by lots of googling and article reading).

Copy and pasting other companies’ innovation methods is not as quick of a fix as one would hope. Think back to when “Idea Boxes” (similar to “suggestion boxes”) first emerged. On the surface, it’s a great concept. And the truth is, its underlying promise still rings true: Anyone can submit ideas. Everyone is invited to take part. But the reality for many companies that tried to implement idea boxes as literally just idea boxes was that it left them with mixed feelings and more stuff on their plate to sift through.

Innovation is not a one-size-fits-all. You have to make sure efforts are customized to your company’s goals, resources, and culture. And so as they say – before you copy from a company, walk a mile in their shoes. Then you will be able to copy them and have their shoes.

Jokes aside, in this day of networking, knowledge sharing, and even co-opetition, there are so many opportunities to investigate firsthand not only what other companies are doing, but how they actually do it. From embarking on an Innovation Journey to another country or keeping it local and visiting companies nearby, there’s much to learn from any organization whether or not they appear on the “Most Innovative List” (they’ll be flattered, trust me). The key here is having a personal interaction and seeing with your own eyes:

  1. New directions that you haven’t thought of – What is the most unique thing the company you visited is doing? It doesn’t have to be a huge, complex mechanism (although it can be). Look for the impact. Understand why it works for them. Did they need to make any adjustments along the way? What changes would you require if you adopted it in your company?
  2. What’s not working #1 – Think what you’d like to improve in your company’s innovation efforts and see if this is something your host company has struggled with as well. Have they found ways to overcome it? Is this something you could approach together and share insights?
  3. What’s not working #2 – Don’t forget to find out (diplomatically) what isn’t working for them. Make sure that you avoid those pitfalls in your company also.
  4. Validation for what is working – Is there something you’re proud of regarding how innovation runs in your company that might work well for your host company too? Based on your visits, are you able to gain confidence in how your company promotes innovation?
  5. Same same but different – Look for similarities in your innovation approaches. Do you share methods or innovation structures? Perhaps small differences can provide a helpful tweak.
  6. Knowledge sharing – Visiting companies offers new vantage points and exposure to knowledge accumulated by others. Traveling abroad provides unique insights that can result from having a different cultural outlook. Staying local offers opportunities for continued personal meet-ups, and ideas for resources you can partake in. You never know what might be going on in your own backyard. Regardless of visiting a company near or far, this is a game of give and take. Extend an invitation to meet back at your company. This will be the making of your own innovators’ network where you can all continue to learn with and from each other.
Getting your company to the “Innovation A-list” and sustaining the position over time is a process of implementing, fine-tuning, and evolving an array of techniques and mechanisms. Finding the right combinations for your company isn’t always a matter of reinventing the wheel, and certainly not successful if just replicated blindly. Get yourself out there, gather intel, and then renovate the wheel to work for you.