One thing employees at high-impact organizations do really well that those at other companies don't do: learning how to learn through rapid tinkering.
Of course that doesn't necessarily mean the most innovative workers come from Ivy League schools. It means that if you want to be the best of the best, you're better off moving fast and learning from real experience rather than waiting for someone to tell you what to do. As MIT Media Lab head Joi Ito states:"Education is what people do to you and learning is what you do to yourself."
Learning how to learn like this means building fast and iterating based on what you learn as a result. It means not waiting around for permission, or expecting early validation that what you want to work on is the right thing to work on.
If you look at any of the most innovative business today you'll see this model in full effect: Tesla, Apple, Netflix, Google, Twitter, all pride themselves on their ability to move fast, "hack" solutions, and maintain momentum as they scale.
At Facebook we have a fairly renown motto that emphasizes this model: Move fast and break things.
When I first joined Facebook it was somewhat frightening to see posters around the office and regular conversations about moving so fast. The weight of potentially making a mistake felt almost overwhelming. But I quickly learned that quickly building real products and quickly getting them into the hands of real people is vastly more powerful than theorizing outcomes or idly sitting by why competitors make moves.
You can learn more from real world mistakes than you can from safe-guarded victories or day-dreamed outcomes.
Those who don't make it to the top of the industry do so out of their inability to simply build fast. It's far easier to wait for someone to give you permission or validation before moving.
Waiting for permission means those who are willing to take action are outpacing you on knowledge and market reach, while looking for validation is procrastination for the sake of wanting someone else to point the finger at if things do go wrong.
You have to instead go out and do the work and learn from what you encounter along the way, both good and bad results. Here's Joi Ito again who says:
"You have to get the stuff into the real world for it to really count...even though the world is extremely complex, what you need to do is very simple. It's about stopping this notion of planning everything, that you need to stock everything, and you need to be so prepared."
In his book, The Black Swan, author, risk analyst, and statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb echoes Ito by writing:
"The strategy for the discoverers and entrepreneurs is to rely less on top-down planning and focus on maximum tinkering and recognizing opportunities when they present themselves."
There will always be a need for some level of planning and preparation. But the value of tinkering, of building fast, and of paying attention to the outcomes of quick efforts, is vastly superior. At least, when it comes to innovation.