Fast Company’s Co-Founder Shares Thoughts on Innovation, Business Strategy

Talent Economy spoke with Bill Taylor about modern talent strategies and what makes companies successful and innovative.

This article originally appeared on Talent Economy. To learn more and follow coverage, sign up.

Bill Taylor co-founded Fast Company in 1995 on the idea that a management revolution was needed in business. And in the more than 20 years since the magazine launched, it has helped spark new ideas in how products are built and how the workplace should continue to evolve to spur innovation.

“If you want to as a business leader do something distinctive and truly original in the marketplace, you’ve also got to do something distinctive and truly original in the workplace,” said Taylor, co-founder of the business magazine and author of “Simply Brilliant: How Great Organizations Do Ordinary Things in Extraordinary Ways.”

Talent Economy spoke with Taylor about modern talent strategies and what makes companies successful and innovative. Edited excerpts follow.

As a co-founder of Fast Company, how have you seen talent strategies transform since the magazine’s first issue in 1995?

I’d say the transformation of talent strategies and thinking about the role of talent and building great organizations has changed more in degree than in kind, meaning that smaller and smaller groups of people can do bigger and bigger things. Because of computing, connectivity and software platforms, if you’re a young, talented, passionate person, it wasn’t like it was 30 or 40 years ago, where you had to spend a long time being a kind of faceless member of a gigantic corporate army to make a real difference in the world. The impact of renegade teams inside big companies meant that earlier in your career than ever, with fewer hard resources than ever, individuals or small groups of individuals could have a really big impact on their company and the world.

To me, that’s the big slip that started with the first internet economy 20 years ago. The sense of impact and sense of leverage and sense of being a difference maker in the world has shifted. It went from if you want to play on the world stage, you’ve got to be part of some gigantic, global organization. You have to show us that you’re worthy of our allowing you in. Now, all the actions at the level of the individual and the small teams are incumbent upon big, global organizations to make sure they are inviting, appealing, compelling to those sorts of people. That flip in the power relationship began 20 years ago. I think it’s only gotten more kind of feverish and intense. And to be honest, to the point now where it’s got me kind of worried.

“ I think we’ve lost a sense of the power of peer-to-peer relationships to elevate, energize and really transform our workplaces and our approach to talent.”

Every liberating, exciting, wondrous breakthrough in the new world of business has its dark side; its downside; its worrisome elements when taken to excess. Part of what we do in business in America is take all good ideas to excess. I feel like we’re at that moment now, where as a business culture and I think as young people working their way through the world, we have developed such a culture of reverence around the Silicon Valley genius, where two or three people become overnight billionaires. It’s kind of the selfie generation taken to an extreme in terms of the talent economy. I worry that in terms of individual talented people, particularly younger ones, they’ve begun to devalue tremendous impact of being part of something bigger than themselves; not just starting your own little company, but maybe having a chance to be part of a big, important, relevant cause.

I hope that we’re going to be on the verge of people recognizing that there is still a tremendously important place for bigger, more established organizations. For them to make themselves more appealing, more relevant, more alluring to the most talented young people in the economy, to say, “You can come here and do your best work, be surrounded by people who bring out the best in you, feel a sense of ownership and freedom over your own life, but really have an opportunity to contribute to something really, really important.” And for young people, I hope more and more of them recognize the value and promise of devoting themselves to an enterprise bigger than they could establish sitting around their kitchen table.

“Simply Brilliant” describes for leaders not only how to innovate products, but how to do business in today’s environment. Where does talent — the people who make up the business — fit into that?

There’s always a dance between companies having a really clear sense of identity about who they are, how they compete, why they expect to win, and then what that means for the kinds of people, the kinds of talent that thrive in that environment and around those ideas.

There’s always this question of if you want to be a great company, does that automatically mean you have to be a great place to work? Do you have to be a great magnet for talent? The answer is, “Well, yeah, but not for everybody.” In other words, if you’re really clear as a company about the kinds of products and services you’re offering that nobody else can offer, the kinds of promises you’re making to your customers that nobody else can make, that means you have to be equally clear about the kinds of people who are capable of developing those products and services and delivering on those promises. They may be wonderfully smart, wonderfully talented, wonderfully gifted people, but their sense of how they want to operate in the world, their personal values, their work styles, their attitudes, simply don’t sync up to what you’re trying to achieve.

“ You can’t do great things in the marketplace unless you first build something great in the workplace.”

To me, the most important question companies who are serious about the talent factor have to answer are not “How do we make ourselves attractive to great people?” but before that, “How do we know a great person when we see one? What are the kinds of mindsets, skillsets, attributes that we think people need to demonstrate such that they could become superstars in our organization because what makes them tick is so in sync with what makes our organization tick?”

This remains the great and the greatest missed opportunity in organizational life today. So many companies I visit simply don’t treat the talent function in business with the level of seriousness or commitment with which they treat R&D, finance [or] marketing. In far too many organizations, it remains in many respects the least dynamic, the least creative and, strangely enough, the least disciplined of all the different business functions. In some sense, I genuinely believe it should be the most dynamic, creative and disciplined because you can’t do great things in the marketplace unless you first build something great in the workplace.

In the book you talk about how the word innovation is overused. What have you seen makes a company truly innovative, and what can business leaders learn from their talent strategies?

I spend most of my life as a researcher, as a writer and as a Fast Company founder, inside some of the most creative, dynamic, transformational, “innovative” organizations in the world, and what strikes me is none of them actually use this word, innovation, very much. For them, capital-I Innovation is not a department. It’s not a special team. It’s not a six-month program to develop new spin offs to existing products. It is just an ongoing way of life, where people understand that the work of leadership is in some fundamental way every single day the work of change.

What you’re trying to do is to create at every level an organization, a culture, a sense of excitement about and commitment to the future where people are constantly tinkering, experimenting, asking, “What if?,” looking for all kinds of ways to build on the company’s past successes even as they build out new products, new services, new offerings, a new point of view about the future. The idea of being in a state of constant renewal for the future is just the natural state of being inside those organizations.

Now, to put a little more meat on that bone, to me, what it really comes down to is the most healthy, successful and — dare I say “innovative” — cultures I’ve found, are the cultures which give the most people the most freedom to fail. There is no innovation without failure. Innovation is about learning. Innovation is about experimenting. Innovation is about personal and intellectual growth, seeing things you didn’t see six months or a year ago, but what’s possible with your market, new ways to reach a segment of customers, new ways to shift some offerings to present something fresh to the marketplace.

The healthiest cultures I know, leaders exude in all kinds of ways — large and small — that it’s OK here to try things that don’t work out because that’s how you get to the things that do work and the big innovations that everybody recognizes.

I’ll wrap it up as follows: The most innovative cultures I’ve gotten to know are cultures and leaders that somehow figure out how to communicate to people that innovation begins to happen when people deep in their bones begin to feel that the risk of trying something new is less than the cost of clinging to the status quo. That is a big shift in culture and mindset for most established organizations today, but I genuinely believe it’s the shift in culture and mindset in talent management that creates the opportunity for growth and innovation going forward.

What talent strategies do you think will be most important for companies to best compete in the talent economy in the future?

I’m not sure if this is a strategy as much as it is a sensibility. I have come to believe that in a world which in so many ways — and certainly inside the workplace — is being reshaped every day by disruptive technology, what people are so hungry for today is a greater, more authentic sense of humanity.

So many leaders and organizations look to the workplace and their approach to talent, and they say, “How can we make everything we do more efficient, more professional, more functional, more crisp?” I believe the real magic happens today when leaders ask themselves, “How do we make everything we do more memorable for our colleagues to encounter and engage in? What is the emotional and psychological contract we’re establishing between the organization, the people who work here and the peer-to-peer commitments that people are making to one another about the sense of identity and personal engagement they bring to the workplace?”

We’ve become so obsessed as a business culture with outsourcing, automation, apps, artificial intelligence, algorithms. These are all tremendously effective tools. But I think we’ve lost a sense of the power of peer-to-peer relationships to elevate, energize and really transform our workplaces and our approach to talent.

I fear in the age of the smart machine, if you will, we’ve kind of turned our eye away from the flesh and blood power of human-to-human connection. I do hope that in this age being so reshaped by technology, a next piece of the agenda for leadership and organizations in terms of talent is rediscovering our shared humanity and making our workplaces and our commitments to one another more authentic, more meaningful, more emotional and psychological than they’ve ever been. I think that gives you a kind of a human platform to do remarkable things in the marketplace.

Lauren Dixon is an associate editor at Talent Economy. To comment, email Also, this Insider profile originally appeared in the July 2017 edition of Talent Economy. Click here to view the entire digital edition of the quarterly journal.

If you want more from Talent Economy, sign up here for newsletters, exclusives and more!

Support Talent Economy by clicking that little heart below.