Watch CBSN Live

4 Innovative Companies That Changed the World

Innovate Dont InventWhen you hear the word "innovation," I bet you think "invention," right? Researchers at Stanford or MIT, engineers with PhDs at IBM, a flash of inspiration, a bunch of patents filed, and voila, the world is forever a different place. That or we have some cool new product like Post-It notes, Velcro, or Wite-out.

Sure, that's exactly how it happens some of the time. But oftentimes, innovation doesn't go down the way we're programmed to think it does. Especially the kind of innovation that truly changes the way we live and work.

Usually, that kind of innovation is about entrepreneurs with a unique vision for solving a big problem or making people's lives better or easier. They take big risks and then plod along, putting one foot in front of another, one day at time, occasionally jumping through hoops or leaping over hurdles that stand in their way.

And you know what? Sometimes adversity, necessity, or even dumb luck plays an unexpected role in helping them pull it off.

You hear the phrase "disruptive change" or "disruptive innovation" all the time, but in most cases, what really happens is slow, evolutionary innovation that, when it finally takes off, brings about market disruption. So it seems like innovation happens fast, but in reality, it doesn't.

I might even argue that innovation that takes time to evolve, or "evolutionary innovation," is less risky, less capital intensive, less disruptive to the organization, and easier to financially bootstrap than revolutionary innovation. It's all good.

Here are Four Innovative Companies That Changed the World. And while they do have plenty of patents and inventions, that's not what their innovation was all about:

As a student, Fred Smith wrote a term paper about the inefficiencies of airfreight shippers with respect to time-sensitive shipments like medicine and electronic or computer parts. Six years later, Smith bought a small aviation firm and began to realize just how hard it was to deliver a package in a day or two. So he set about resolving those inefficiencies, one thing led to another, and express mail delivery was born.

FedEx's innovation, express mail, happened because one man thought it might be a good idea and set out to figure out how to do it.

Believe it or not, there was a time when Cisco and 3COM were the same size in terms of revenue and earnings. Just seven years later, however, Cisco's sales had grown 30 fold and it had become the most highly valued company in the world at over $500 billion. There were lots of network companies at the time, but Cisco alone had a vision of just how big point-to-point wide area networks (WAN) could become. So it acquired company after company and grew as fast as it could, helping businesses and eventually consumers to network.

Other companies had routers too, but Cisco changed the world through extraordinary execution of an aggressive growth-by-acquisition strategy.

When Apple came up with its "Think Different." tagline with the launch of the iMac, it wasn't just a marketing message; it was a reflection of a new way of thinking since Steve Jobs returned to the company. Thinking different became Apple's competency, its process, its differentiation. In a world of beige PCs, 5-disk CD players, and flip cell phones, Steve Jobs trained his company to look at things differently with new eyes and fresh perspective. That's how a computer company has been able to transform one market after another.

Apple's innovation was to look past how we currently do things. To think different.

I don't think there's anything particularly magical about Google's search engine, per se. Regardless, Google's search algorithms did not account for how quickly the company got to a $150 billion market cap, $20 earnings per share, and a brand that's a verb in everybody's daily lexicon. All that happened because of Google's approach to search advertising, AdWords. In fact, Google's founders tried to sell their search engine for a million bucks.

Google's innovation was making money off finding things on the Internet.

I can go on and on: McDonald's, Toyota, Dell, Southwest Airlines, even Microsoft. The point is this. When you think "innovation," don't limit yourself to "invention."

Also check out:

Image Courtesy Apple Inc.