How to Innovate Like Apple

Last Updated Aug 11, 2009 2:22 PM EDT

Apple makes it look easy. From the sleek design of its personal
computers to the clever intuitiveness of its software to the ubiquity of the
iPod to the genius of the iPhone, Apple consistently redefines each market it
enters by creating brilliant gadgets that put the competition to shame. What's
the secret? Apple has built its management system so that it's
optimized to create distinctive products. That's good news for
would-be emulators, because it means Apple's method for innovation
can be understood as a specific set of management practices and organizational
structures that — in theory, at least — anyone can use.
This Crash Course outlines the techniques Apple uses to make the magic happen.


Clear Your Mind


GOAL: Understand what it takes to create truly
remarkable products.


The word “zen” is often applied to both
Apple’s products and the company’s highly focused CEO,
Steve Jobs. And while the compliment usually refers to the beauty of the
company’s minimalist products, enlightenment is more than skin-deep. “In
most people’s vocabularies, design means veneer. It’s
interior decorating. It’s the fabric of the curtains or the sofa,”
Jobs has said of his product philosophy. “But to me, nothing could be
further from the meaning of design.” Design is a “fundamental
soul,” Jobs says, that expresses itself through an end result —
the product.

What is Apple’s fundamental soul? The company’s
motto, “Think Different,” provides a hint. Apple maintains
an introspective, self-contained operating style that is capable of confounding
competitors and shaking up entire industries. For example, Nokia, once
considered the undisputed leader in mobile phones, never anticipated that a
single product from a computer maker might throw its ascendancy into question.

Internally, Apple barely acknowledges competition. It’s
the company’s ability to think differently about itself that keeps
Apple at the head of the pack. Current and past employees tell stories about
products that have undergone costly overhauls just to improve one simple
detail. Other products are canceled entirely because they don’t fit
in or don’t perform up to par.

Apple’s culture has codified a habit that is good for
any company to have but is especially valuable for firms that make physical
things: Stop, step back from your product, and take a closer look. Without
worrying about how much work you’ve already put into it, is it really
as good as it could be? Apple asks that question constantly.



Build Your Fortress


GOAL: Create the infrastructure you need to innovate.


From the outside, Apple’s offices look like those of
just about any large modern American corporation. Having outgrown its
headquarters campus at 1 Infinite Loop in Cupertino, Calif., Apple now has
employees in other buildings scattered across the town and around the world.
Size and sprawl are formidable challenges that most companies manage
gracelessly, either by splintering into disorganized, undisciplined communities
or by locking employees into tight, stifling bureaucracies. Apple tends toward
the latter, but it does so in a unique way that generally (but not always)
plays to its advantage.

At its worst, Apple’s culture resembles the closed
paranoia of North Korea. For example, one Apple source who agreed to be
interviewed anonymously for this story backed out at the last minute. Why? He
feared that his employer would examine his phone bill and find him out. Another
spoke on background but mentioned the possibility of a lawsuit if he were
quoted by name. These are common fears within Apple, and they really do keep
the company’s employees quiet. The obsession with secrecy is a
double-edged sword, however: It gives Apple a vital element of surprise in the
marketplace, but the never-ending game of internal spy vs. spy is draining for
rank-and-file employees. Indeed, the corporate culture came under scrutiny
recently after an employee of a foreign supplier — reportedly under
suspicion for leaking the prototype of a new iPhone — committed
suicide in Shenzhen, China.

Beyond the secrecy, which affects everyone, Apple’s
approach is hardly one-size-fits-all. Rank-and-file employees are often given
clear-cut directives and close supervision. Proven talent gets a freer hand,
regardless of job title.


Checklist

Managing Different

Over time, Apple has built a seasoned management team that’s
optimized to support bold new product initiatives (and recover from the
occasional flop). Here are a few of the techniques Apple’s management
uses to make the magic happen.

1. Ignore fads. Apple has held off building a cheap
miniature laptop to respond to the “netbook” fad, because
these devices don’t offer good margins. Instead it released the
ultrathin, ultra-expensive Air, a product more in line with its own style.

2. Don’t back down from fights you can win. Apple
is a tough partner and a ruthless enemy. In 2007, Apple pulled NBC’s
television programs from the iTunes Store after the network tried to double the
prices consumers pay to download shows. NBC backed down within days, and ever
since, giant media conglomerates have been hesitant to face off with Apple over
pricing.

3. Flatten sprawling hierarchies. Companies with extended
chains of authority tend to plod when it’s time to act. Most of the
decisions at Apple come from Jobs and his immediate deputies.

4. Pay less attention to market research and competitors. Most firms develop their products through a combination of touchy-feely
consumer focus groups and efforts to imitate successful products from other
companies. Apple does neither, and the iPod and iPhone are clear proof of that.



Cultivate Your Elite


GOAL: Empower your most valuable employees to do
amazing work.


In truly despotic societies, both art and science suffer
terribly. Apple, on the other hand, reliably churns out the industrial
equivalents of da Vinci paintings and Hokusai woodcuts. This has little to do
with how the company treats employees in general. Rather, it stems from the
meticulous care and feeding provided to a specific group: the creatives. Apple’s
segmented, stratified organizational structure — which coddles its
most valuable, productive employees — is one of the company’s
most formidable assets.

One former Apple consultant tells of an eye-opening introduction
to Apple’s first-class treatment of its creatives. The consultant
visited Apple’s Industrial Design Group, the team that gives Apple
products their distinctive, glossy look. Tucked away within Apple’s
main campus, the IDG is a world unto itself. It’s also sealed behind
unmarked, restricted-access doors. Within the IDG, employees operate free from
outside distractions and interference. “It didn’t feel like
working at Apple,” our source remembers. “It felt like
working at a small design firm.” Some companies are famous for perks —
Google, for example, with its free massages and gourmet lunches. Apple focuses
on atmosphere, nurturing its best designers behind opaque glass in a hidden
sanctuary with music playing in the background.

Despite their favored status, Apple’s creatives still
have no more insight into the company’s overall operations than an
Army private has into the Pentagon. At Apple, new products are often seen in
their complete form by only a small group of top executives. This, too, works
as a strength for Apple: Instead of a sprawling bureaucracy that new products
have to be pushed through, Apple’s top echelon is a small, tightly
knit group that has a hand in almost every important decision the company
makes.


Case Study

Nurturing Innovation at Cisco

Other firms have also found success by separating innovation
from business as usual. Here’s what David Hsieh, vice president of
marketing at Cisco, has to say about his company’s Emerging
Technologies Group:

“Big companies have a tendency to eat their own
children. They get afraid of disrupting their own revenue stream with a new
unit, or someone has a great idea and an executive sponsors it, but the moment
the sponsor comes under pressure, they ditch all the little initiatives to
focus on their core business. The advantage of a new unit is to insulate it
from people who say, ‘We can’t do it that way because we’ve
done it a different way for years.’ You want to enable a group of
people to think more broadly and creatively without outside pressures. Cisco’s
Emerging Technologies Group has been in operation for three years, and it’s
created a number of businesses. The early ones are all growing successfully,
even in a bad economy.”


Don’t Rush, Don’t Dawdle


Goal: Prevent short-term, cyclical, or competitive
pressures from overwhelming an effective strategy.


It’s often said that people in particular cultures
live life at their own unique paces. Americans are seen as hard-driving and
somewhat shortsighted — a side effect of a business culture that
takes its cues from the stock market’s emphasis on quarterly results.

Apple is different because Apple dances to a rhythm of its own
making. Although its rising stock has become a vital part of many portfolios,
Apple cancels, releases, and updates products at its own speed, seemingly
irrespective of market conditions or competitive pressure. Apple doesn’t
telegraph its moves, either: The iPod and iPhone, iconic products both, each
began as rumors that Apple seemed determined to quash.


Plan B

Staying Cool When the Heat Is On

Your stock price is down, your customers are angry, and
investors are banging on your door. Sure, acting like Apple seems like a good
idea — until your board starts craving blood. How do you maintain a
focus on innovation when you don’t have a few successful quarters to
back you up?

For a vivid demonstration of how to publicly recover from
your errors (in style, no less), check out the video of Steve Jobs’
1997 Macworld address
and an associated BNET feature, href="http://www.bnet.com/2403-13068_23-194984.html">How to Present Like Steve Jobs.


Clone Your Own Steve Jobs

GOAL: If you put a tyrannical perfectionist in charge,
institutionalize his thinking.


New adherents to the cult of Steve Jobs may be surprised to hear
this: The most iconic Apple laptop, href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Powerbook_150.jpg">the original
PowerBook, was released in 1991, after Jobs had been absent for six years.
The smug hipsters who line today’s cafes with rows of identical
MacBooks are merely updated versions of their counterparts from the early ’90s.
Yet Jobs was in no way responsible for this enduring innovation.

So does that mean Steve Jobs is irrelevant? Or is Jobs —
and his maniacal focus on building insanely great products — a
necessary ingredient of Apple’s success?

Historians have long grappled with a similar question: How
critical are those rare, world-changing “great leaders”
whose efforts seem irreplaceable? Most historians now believe that great
leaders are made by their circumstances and that their great deeds actually
reflect the participation of thousands, or even millions, of people. In the
case of Apple, there would be no Mac, no iPod, and no iPhone without the
efforts of thousands of engineers and vast numbers of consumers who were
looking for products that better served their needs.

That said, Jobs cuts an impressive figure, and if he was “made”
by his circumstances, that process took many years. Remember that the first
edition of Steve Jobs — the young inventor who, at 21, created Apple
Computer — was not the visionary we know today. Instead, after nine
years at Apple’s helm, the young Steve Jobs was ousted because of his
aggressive, take-no-prisoners personality, which created a poisonous,
unproductive atmosphere when it pervaded the company.

Today’s Steve Jobs seems to have learned how to focus
that aggressive, take-no-prisoners personality more shrewdly, and to great
effect. While he’s still an essential part of Apple’s
success, the company has also institutionalized many of Jobs’ values
to such an extent that Apple is now far less dependent on him. Tim Cook, for
example, worked well as acting CEO during the first half of this year, when
Jobs was on sick leave. But questions remain. So long as the overwhelming
personality of Jobs is present, can anyone really grow into that position? Only
when Jobs steps back from his role permanently will we really be able to
determine how well Apple has learned the lessons he has taught.


Other Resources

The Apple Bookshelf

Whether or not Jobs is vital to Apple, the company’s
history is inextricably linked to his life. The books below offer a history,
from founding to present day, of the making of Apple.

If you only have time for one:

href="http://www.amazon.com/Apple-Confidential-2-0-Definitive-Colorful/dp/1593270100/ref=pd_sim_b_4">Apple Confidential 2.0: The Definitive History of the World’s
Most Colorful Company, by Owen Linzmayer

See also:

href="http://www.amazon.com/Little-Kingdom-Private-Story-Computer/dp/0688039731/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1239074102&sr=8-1">The Little Kingdom: The Private Story of Apple Computer, by
Michael Moritz

href="http://www.amazon.com/iWoz-Computer-Invented-Personal-Co-Founded/dp/0393330435/ref=pd_sim_b_9">iWoz: Computer Geek to Cult Icon: How I Invented the
Personal Computer, Co-Founded Apple, and Had Fun Doing It, by Steve Wozniak

href="http://www.amazon.com/West-Eden-Innocence-Apple-Computer/dp/0140093729/ref=cm_lmf_tit_5_rdssss0">West of Eden: The End of Innocence at Apple Computer, by
Frank Rose

href="http://www.amazon.com/Odyssey-Pepsi-Journey-Adventure-Future/dp/0060157801/ref=cm_lmf_tit_3_rdssss0">Odyssey: Pepsi to Apple: A Journey of Adventure, Ideas and
the Future, by John Sculley (with John A. Byrne)

href="http://www.amazon.com/Second-Coming-Steve-Jobs/dp/0767904338/ref=pd_sim_b_3">The Second Coming of Steve Jobs, by Alan Deutschman




  • Chris Morrison

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