Tuesday, 7 June 2011

The Apple Innovation Machine

Unique and powerful innovation leadership

For several years at ?What if! as part of our TopDog programme we’ve taken a group of senior exec's to visit Apple.  Every time I’ve entered the heart of the worlds greatest innovation business in sunny Cupertino, California I’ve been tense with excitement.  You see, I’m an Apple freak (at home we have more than 15 shiny boxes with that logo, at work over 300) and I’m also obsessed with cracking the innovation genome.  So put this together and you can see why entering the hallowed land that is 1 Infinite Loop just does it for me. 

Of course there’s a ‘but’ to this story.  And the ‘but’ here is that on a visit Apple don’t share stuff, at least not much.  Yes, fantastic explanation of the product range but no deep revelation about how Apple are such an incredible innovation machine.

So now I’ve just read an article in Fortune by Adam Lashinsky that goes some way to explaining how they do it and why they are so secretive about it. http://tech.fortune.cnn.com/2011/05/09/inside-apple/  It makes for fascinating reading and chimes with my experience.  What struck me is how this messiah like figure has shaped the business around his vision and personality, so far with huge success.  But is Apple always going to be just a one off?  A single bright star in the innovation galaxy?  How far can chief exec's hope to copy Jobs' recipe?  Remember, he got to rebuild virtually from scratch whereas most of us have jumped on a moving train.  Here are a couple of practical things Lashinsky highlights that could be copied but warning, you’ll need balls of steel!

1.   Responsibility on steroids: Jobs holds weekly development reviews often going over the heads of his direct reports and publicly drilling the ‘DRIs’ – directly responsible individuals for answers.  Potentially terrifying but I imagine surviving this hugely exhilarating.  Many moons ago I worked for Unilever in Thailand and my chairman did exactly the same.  None of us were in any doubt about how important innovation was, the atmosphere was electric.  I wouldn’t use the world ‘cuddly’ to describe those days but we got results and there are plenty of cuddly innovation environments that no one will remember.

2.   No general management, no P&Ls:  Only the CFO gets to play with the numbers.  Otherwise functional expertise is strictly adhered to.  Apple is not a place to learn the art of general management.  But this means ideas get shared at the top of the company.  This is pretty radical stuff compared to many organisations I work with.  All too often ‘ideas’ kicked around at the upper echelons are stripped of what I call ‘look and feel’ and represented instead by yields and launch pathways.  To Apple, and to Jobs the role a product plays in someone’s life is paramount – and it’s accepted that that role will be part emotional and part rational.

All this doesn’t mean that Apple eschew consumers as part of the development process.  The thing is Apple people are their consumers and they are very confident around their vision for how things should be.  This is in refreshing and stark contrast to many organizations who rely on endless research and endless dialogue (talking masquerading as collaboration?) to innovate.  Apple are a great reminder that there’s no substitute for strong leadership.  Jobs is famous for drilling his people on the art of say NO.  We can establish all the innovation process, tools, capabilities we want but none of it is worth a penny unless someone is consistent, even obsessional about what’s ok and what’s not ok around here.

(PS – Lashinsky has insight into how Jobs is preparing for Apple after Jobs, again methodical, purposeful and clinically cunning.)