How Innovative Companies Push the Limits and Accomplish the Impossible It takes a village with a unique culture to build innovative products. And that's all great companies are: villages with cultures all their own.

By Steve Tobak

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Most people have no idea what goes into developing a modern day microprocessor or a smartphone. Nor could the average person begin to fathom all the networks, servers, storage devices, and routers that are needed to accomplish a single operation of uploading photos to the cloud or watching a streaming video.

The level of complexity required to design, manage, and build those products is truly remarkable. Yet, what I find even more remarkable is that these miracles of modern technology were all dreamed up and manufactured by innovators who pushed the limits of what common doctrine said could and couldn't be done.

When I was a kid – way back in the dark ages – I used to be fascinated by the massive scale of the city I lived in, New York. All those buildings, parks, stadiums, malls, sidewalks, and roads had to be envisioned and built by unique individuals who could really see the big picture.

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That, to me, was mind-boggling at the time. While you might guess that I grew up to be an architect, in a sense, you'd be right, although I didn't design enormous structures made of concrete but tiny structures made of silicon.

Looking back on it, I can definitely see the similarities in terms of what it takes to envision, manage, and build complex structures, whether that's accomplished on the enormous scale of a city or on the microscopic level of a semiconductor chip with billions of transistors.

Back in the day, we dreamed big. We dreamed of building huge structures and traveling great distances in rockets to outer space. Today, we still dream big, although innovation is more about what we can accomplish in the palm of our hands and where we can go in cyberspace.

Regardless, human innovation is always about one thing: pushing the limits and accomplishing the impossible.

But here's the thing. It's not all about the visionary or the inventor. Whether you're developing on an enormous scale or on a tiny one, you still need all sorts of different types of individuals. You need designers and developers. You need strategists and executers. You need finance and human-capital-management experts.

As the old proverb says, "It takes a village to raise a child." The same is true of any innovative or challenging endeavor.

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And if you want the end result to be a breakout product that's better than anything else out there, all those different individuals that play different roles – the entire village, so to speak – need to have one thing in common. They need to have a "push the limits and accomplish the impossible" mindset.

That mindset doesn't just happen on its own. It isn't magic. It starts with one, two, maybe three individuals, then propagates through the organization, and is reinforced by those founders or leaders as the company scales over time. That's how a "push the limits and accomplish the impossible" mindset becomes part of a company culture.

Having worked with countless founders, executives, and startups over several decades in the high-tech industry, I've observed that the few great companies that emerged were the ones whose leaders somehow managed to build that sort of innovative mindset into the culture, even as the company grew.

Whenever I hear folks whine about the evils of capitalism and corporate America – how corporations are not people – I wish they could understand that it's not the size of an organization that matters, but how well it maintains an innovative culture as it grows.

If those people could only see innovative corporate giants like Apple, Intel, and Microsoft as I do – as I've seen them grow from the early days to now – they would see them as villages raising children with cultures all their own. And those children are the employees who push the limits and accomplish the impossible, as well as the miraculous products they build for us to use.

It takes a village to innovate. It takes a village to push the limits and accomplish the impossible. And that's all great companies are. Villages with cultures all their own.

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Steve Tobak

Author of Real Leaders Don't Follow

Steve Tobak is a management consultant, columnist, former senior executive, and author of Real Leaders Don’t Follow: Being Extraordinary in the Age of the Entrepreneur (Entrepreneur Press, October 2015). Tobak runs Silicon Valley-based Invisor Consulting and blogs at stevetobak.com, where you can contact him and learn more.

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