Business literature usually holds up the super-creative, super-growth tech firms of Silicon Valley as examples of best practice, where plucky young entrepreneurs dream up radical new business models and where employees nap, do their laundry and get a massage without leaving the comfort of their office. It's obsessed with the 'new economy' - the Googles, the Amazons and the Apples.
Not so in Simply Brilliant, the latest book from Fast Company founder William C Taylor. It draws insights from lesser-known but highly successful organisations, from the Indian Health Service in Anchorage, Alaska, to Lincoln Electric in Ohio, a globally successful producer of welding equipment founded in 1895. Taylor spent long days touring factories, visiting retail outlets and sitting in on meetings at 15 organisations - all from different fields and with wildly different histories - to discover the traits of companies that do ordinary things in extraordinary ways.
He consciously avoids his comfort zone of tech, travelling thousands of miles to find uncelebrated companies that demonstrate a way of doing business that is genuinely remarkable; from a car park that also serves as a wedding venue to a military insurance company that puts salespeople through simulated overseas development. 'The thrill of breakthrough creativity and breakaway performance doesn't just belong to the youngest companies with the most cutting-edge technology,' he says. 'It can be summoned in all sorts of industries and all walks of life, if leaders can reimagine what's possible in their fields.'
Being good at what you do is no longer enough, states Taylor early on in the book. Average is 'over' and you must be the only one doing what you do. In a business climate defined by globalisation and constant breakthroughs, this is increasingly relevant.
Taylor draws on the example of Metro Bank, one of the buzziest financial services brands in the UK, attracting more than £1bn in capital from some of the world's best-known investors. Metro Bank locations are open 362 days per year and it vows that new customers can walk into a branch, open an account, and leave with a working debit card and full access to online banking within 15 minutes. It has opened the first drive-through bank in the UK. It doesn't just do things a little better than other companies; it has a one-of-a-kind presence, delivering a one-of-a-kind performance and rejects industry norms. As an entrepreneur in the fintech sector, it's an example I could relate to. Reform isn't enough; only those who can envisage new services outside of the current financial paradigm can grow and win market share.
Taylor extends his research of challenger organisations to non-profits, such as the 100,000 Homes Campaign unveiled in July 2010 by an organisation based in New York City called Community Solutions. The aim: to stamp out homelessness in many major cities. He uses this to highlight the 'paradox of expertise', where those who have the most experience of working with a system find it hardest to identify alternatives to existing practices. In this case, a former army captain took charge of the project and went on to achieve fantastic results. As Taylor puts it, 'Expertise is powerful - until it gets in the way of innovation.'
Simply Brilliant celebrates the human side of business, something which tech often obscures more than it supports. All of the companies in the book exude a sense of purpose and are dedicated to promoting a sense of identity for their staff and customers. They remind us that creativity and productivity should never come at the expense of empathy and generosity.
In an era of 'cut-throat competition, deep-seated cynicism and the digital disruption of everything', Taylor says that many of us crave 'small gestures of kindness' that remind us of what it means to be human. It's those small gestures that send big signals. I couldn't agree more. I co-founded Prodigy Finance in 2007 after experiencing first-hand the difficulties of financing an international MBA; we now deal with students from over 100 nationalities, many of whom are the first in their families to attend university. In our business, cultural awareness and empathy are crucial.
This book is relevant, absorbing and practical. It cleverly lays out a blueprint for building companies in the 21st-century digital world using examples that are generations old. And yes, it's simply brilliant.
Simply Brilliant: How Great Organizations Do Ordinary Things in Extraordinary Ways by William C Taylor is published by Portfolio Penguin, £14.99
Cameron Stevens is a serial entrepreneur and the co-founder of Prodigy Finance, a global fintech provider of postgraduate funding