Innovation’s Holy Grail

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Under Steve Jobs, Apple became what by almost all accounts has been the most successfully innovative company in the world.  Now Apple faces what may be an even more daunting challenge: continuing with that innovation success without Steve Jobs.

Isn’t that innovation’s Holy Grail? Isn’t that what the whole field of innovation is trying to figure out: how to build an organization that can produce the kind of success of an Apple…without having a world class genius at the helm? Obviously, there aren’t enough Steve Jobs to go around and what few there are, are not easily recognized in advance. Yet, what company wouldn’t love to become the next Apple?

It’s a challenge that Apple and Jobs himself anticipated. Some three years ago the highly regarded Dean of Yale’s School of Management, Joel Podolny was recruited to launch and lead Apple University. It was reportedly envisioned as a strategy to somehow institutionalize Jobs ability to innovate and assure that Apple continues to reflect his brilliance.

One thing that is likely to continue at Apple is the company’s renowned secrecy. So even if Apple meets that challenge it will probably not disclose exactly how, and in any case it will take some time to judge its success or failure. So in the meantime I have some hunches as to how Podolny and Apple are proceeding.

Commitment

This is probably the easiest piece for Apple: continuing Job’s commitment to innovation. To be world class at innovation, an organization must want to be…intensely, consistently and at the highest levels. A great many organizations are unwilling to truly make that commitment. Maintaining current success takes priority over innovation for the future; experimentation is discouraged, risk is something to avoid. It takes genuine courage and trust and faith to play the innovation game. Given its history and the inspiration of Steve Jobs, Apple will probably continue to have a greater commitment than most.

People Over Process

Steve Jobs more than anyone personified the conviction that innovation is about people rather than process. His personal insights, his ability to discern what others missed and connect the dots in unique ways were keys to Apple’s success. There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about how to make innovation a predictable business process, as though it can be mapped out like a manufacturing line or sales cycle. Apple has innovation processes but they were designed to reflect and serve the genius of Jobs and others, not the other way around. Great innovation comes not from fitting people into pre-designed processes but by designing processes that can harness human brilliance. It’s a very different emphasis and no one understood this better than Steve Jobs.

Become One With the Customer

Steve Jobs had a reputation for being extremely picky about design and ease of use. He had a knack for seeing things with a customer’s eye while envisioning more than his customers ever imagined. Apple was always on the leading edge of technology but without making the technology the driver. Jobs was relentless in insisting that technology must serve the customer—simply, elegantly, beautifully. It was never just about what designers and engineers could create; it was about what customers would embrace…again a very different emphasis.

Focus on the Choices

Those less experienced in fostering innovation tend to see it as a quest for great ideas. Ideas are important but generating them is relatively easy compared to choosing and implementing them. Which ones should you pursue? Which ones are feasible? Which ones will succeed in the marketplace? How do you know? Great innovators and the not-so-great all have ideas. What distinguishes great innovators is their knack for picking great ideas, defining the outcome, developing a strategy, and knowing when to change those things. That’s all about making good choices, which I would argue is innovation’s ultimate differentiator.

Even Steve Jobs wasn’t infallible in making those choices but he was quite good, partly because he made a point of getting a lot of practice. It’s a skill we develop when we’re willing to get our hands dirty, take risks, make mistakes and carefully reflect on the inevitable reality checks we receive. We develop powerful intuitions when we’re willing to continually test them. It’s also worth noting that organizations don’t have intuitions; people do. It’s a personal skill, one that no amount of process can replace.

Under Steve Jobs, Apple was the gold standard for innovation. It’s a standard even Apple will have a hard time continuing to meet. But under Jobs, Apple proved that it’s attainable…when the commitment is there, when people and their brilliance are valued and leveraged, when you intimately understand the customer, and when you become skilled at making the right choices. How do you and your organization measure up?

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