If innovation is the engine driving our economy and culture forward, then innovative people are the sought-after fuel.
Startups are not the only organizations competing to invest in innovative talent. Existing companies of all sizes and sectors are vying for innovators in a competitive employer market. Many corporations are seeking and rewarding innovative employees or developing creative ways to spark employee creativity, but if companies do not sincerely value the benefits of internal innovation they risk losing their most valuable asset – innovative talent.
"No industry is safe from innovation," said Diana Kander, an innovation consultant. "Even organizations you think are safe – government agencies, public utilities, etc. – feel significant impact from innovation."
According to Scott Kirsner, founder and CEO of Innovation Leader who writes about innovation for the Boston Globe and Harvard Business Review, even the most innovative companies in Silicon Valley constantly see people leaving to create startups.
"Entrepreneurs only need one or two people to say yes to an idea; to get something going in a company you need 20 yesses, or 100," said Kirsner.
This gravitational pull to innovate has been going on for a long time and has catalyzed many entrepreneurs to great success.
Brad MacLaughlin was a superintendent of schools for the Independence (Missouri) School District, where he led a cutting-edge program that transformed three high schools into career academies that offer students more experiential opportunities. Making this kind of change in a school district was not easy – it called for reorganizing courses so students could explore their interests and making sure these "pathways" were tied to local workforce development data.
Five years later, graduation rates and student performance were skyrocketing. MacLaughlin wanted to take this proven recipe for success to more students.
"I saw a greater opportunity to scale this to the region," he said. "I couldn’t reach the scale I wanted to only in the Independence community."
So MacLaughlin started K12 Perform, an education technology platform and consultancy that helps school administrators track metrics and intervene before scores are impacted (think truancy rates, parent engagement, etc.).
"My exit from public education is more a statement about the lack of agility and nimbleness of the industry as a whole," MacLaughlin said. "Education defaults to the way it’s been done. That’s not what the kids need today and not what industry needs today."
Like MacLaughlin, Bryan Shannon recognized an opportunity to apply an innovation to an industry that has long been a staple in the economy – over-the-road trucking. His company, TicketRX, is a digital platform that connects truck drivers with attorneys nationwide to resolve traffic infractions and other compliance issues while on the road. Shannon arrived at this idea only after exploring a different market.
"We initially focused on the everyday driver but realized there was a pain point for over-the-road truck drivers," he said. "We quickly pivoted to serve this space because for truck drivers, their livelihood was at stake."
That pivoting happened while Shannon was working a full-time corporate job, fleshing out his business startup on the side. For him, starting a business was inevitable.
"I always knew I’d start my company – or multiple companies – and I wasn’t particularly focused in that corporate arena," he said.
Shannon’s startup was quickly acquired, so he is now an employer who is committed to maintaining an innovative environment. "I encourage new ideas and fresh perspectives; I am the last person to put someone in a box," he said. "Entrepreneurs try to come up with creative ideas and tactics to solve problems. You can take those same qualities and apply them to corporate challenges."
While some people insist corporate innovation is an oxymoron, Kander is convinced even the biggest corporations can be as innovative as a startup. But the company must be willing to do the hard work to be more flexible and quick-moving, Kander advises. Companies that have been successful in the past and want to keep up with the rapid pace of change are prime for adopting habits that will foster innovation.