As a kid way back in the dark ages I was fascinated by the massive scale of the city I grew up in, New York. All those buildings, parks, stadiums, malls, sidewalks, roads, and highways had to be envisioned and built by unique individuals who could really see the big picture. I wanted to be one of those people.

By the time I graduated college, though, the big thing was putting that level of complexity on a chip or in a device. Instead of enormous structures made of concrete, I managed the design of tiny structures made of silicon. I can’t tell you how gratifying that work was to me.

Today, everything is far more complex. You couldn’t imagine what goes into developing and building a modern day microprocessor or smartphone. It takes years and thousands of ridiculously hardworking people to develop and build. But what’s really mind-blowing is that one person envisioned it.

Looking back on it, I can definitely see the similarities in terms of what it takes to envision, manage, and build complex structures. Whether that’s accomplished on the enormous scale of a city or on the microscopic level of a semiconductor chip with a billion transistors, it’s all the same.

Back in the day, we dreamed big. We dreamed of building huge structures and traveling great distances in rockets to outer space. Today, we still dream big, although innovation is more about what we can accomplish in the palm of our hands and where we can go in cyberspace. And there’s always a visionary who takes on the naysayers who say it can’t be done.

But here’s the thing. Regardless of the scale, you need individuals with all sorts of capabilities. You need designers and developers. You need strategists and executers. You need finance and human capital management experts. As the old proverb says, “It takes a village to raise a child.” The same is true of any innovative endeavor.

And if you want the end result to be a breakout product that’s better than anything else out there, all those different individuals that play different roles – the entire village, so to speak – need to have one thing in common. They need to have a “push the limits and accomplish the impossible” mindset.

That doesn’t just happen on its own, mind you. It isn’t magic. It takes a visionary or a founder to create that mindset and a leadership team that propagates and reinforces it down through the organization. That’s how it becomes part of a company culture.

Having worked with countless founders and startups over the decades, I’ve observed how the few great companies that emerged had unique leaders who built that sort of innovative mindset into their culture, even as the company grew.

When I hear people whine about the evils of capitalism and corporate America – how corporations are not people – I wish they could understand that it’s not the size of an organization that matters, but how well it maintains an innovative culture as it grows.

If they could only see groundbreaking corporate giants like Apple, Intel, and Microsoft as I do – as I’ve seen them grow from the early days – they would see them as villages populated by employees taught to challenge the status quo and do what others say can’t be done.

That’s what an innovative company is: a visionary and a village with a culture all its own that does the impossible.

A version of this originally appeared at entrepreneur.com.

Image credit SilviaChi85 via flickr.

  • BigGameHunter

    Good post, Steve. So true. In my own parlance, there are the vital functionaries who execute and the strategists who have the ability to envisage a world that does not yet exist. The art form of a great strategist and big picture thinker, is to make all others eventually see the picture so that the nuts & bolts work of innovation occurs. That village goes beyond the sum total of people working with each other, it’s also an environment that makes them work so well together that it feels as right as rain. Merry Christmas, Mark

    • Steve Tobak

      It’s a beautiful thing when it works.

      Merry Christmas to you and your family, Mark!