You Can't Innovate Like Apple

By Alain Breillatt
August 01, 2009

When what you teach and develop every day has the title “Innovation” attached to it, you reach a point where you tire of hearing about Apple. Without question, nearly everyone believes the equation Apple = Innovation is a fundamental truth. Discover what makes them different.

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Then, by using specified criteria, they narrow these 10 ideas down to three options, which the team spends months further developing…until they finally narrow down to the one final concept that truly represents their best work for production.

This approach is intended to offer enormous latitude for creativity that breaks past restrictions. But it also means they inherently plan to throw away 90% of the work they do. I don’t know many organizations for which this would be an acceptable ratio. Your CFO would probably declare, “All I see is money going down the drain.” This is a major reason why I say you can’t innovate like Apple.

Paired design meetings. Every week, the teams of engineers and designers get together for two complementary meetings.

Brainstorm meeting—leave your hang-ups at the door and go crazy in developing various approaches to solving particular problems or enhancing existing designs. This meeting involves free thinking with absolutely no rules.

Production meeting—the absolute opposite of the brainstorm meeting, where the aim is to put structure around the crazy ideas and define the how to, why, and when.

These two meetings continue throughout the development of any application. If you have heard stories of Jobs discarding finished concepts at the very last minute, you understand why the team operates in this manner. It’s part of their corporate DNA of grueling perfection. But the balance does shift away from free thinking and more toward a production mindset as the application progresses—even while they keep the door open for creative thought at the latest stages.

Pony meetings. These meetings are scheduled every two weeks with the internal clients to educate the decision-makers on the design directions being explored and influence their perception of what the final product should be.

They’re called “pony” meetings because they correspond to Lopp’s description of the experience of senior managers dispensing their wisdom and wants to the development team when discussing the early specifications for the product.

“I want WYSIWIG …


I want it to support major browsers …


I want it to reflect the spirit of our company.”

[What???] In other words, I want a pony. Who doesn’t want a pony? A pony is gorgeous! Anyone who has been through this experience can tell you that these people are describing what they think they want. Lopp cops to reality in explaining that, since they sign the checks, you cannot simply ignore these senior managers. But you do have to manage their expectations and help align their vision with the team’s.

The meetings achieve this purpose and give a sense of control to senior management, so that they have visibility into the process and can influence the direction. Again, the purpose of this is to save the team from pursuing a line of direction that ultimately gets tossed because one of the decision makers wasn’t on board.

Now, if you want to get the quick summary of what we just discussed, I highly recommend reading Mike Rohde’s SXSW Interactive 2008 Sketchnotes. He took highly illustrated notes of the Lopp/Gruber panel. Content for this write-up also came from: Scott Fiddelke, Dylan at The Email Wars, Jared Christensen, David at BFG, and Tom Kershaw.

What else does Apple do differently?

If you read the various interviews that Jobs and Jonathan Ive (Senior Vice President, Industrial Design at Apple) have given over the last few years, you’ll find a few specific trends:

1. Apple does not do market research. This is straight from Jobs’ mouth: We do no market research. They scoff at the notion of target markets, and they don’t conduct focus groups. Why? Because everything Apple designs is based on Jobs’ and his team’s perceptions of what they think is cool. He elaborates:

“It’s not about pop culture, and it’s not about fooling people, and it’s not about convincing people that they want something they don’t. We figure out what we want. And I think we’re pretty good at having the right discipline to think through whether a lot of other people are going to want it, too. That’s what we get paid to do. So you can’t go out and ask people, you know, what’s the next big [thing.] There’s a great quote by Henry Ford, right? He said, ‘If I’d have asked my customers what they wanted, they would have told me ‘A faster horse.’’’

Said another way, Jobs hires really smart people, and he lets them loose—but on a leash, since he overlooks it all with an extremely demanding eye. If you’re seeing visions of the “Great Eye” from J.R.R. Tolkien’s books, then you probably wouldn’t be too far off. Here’s the way their simple process works:

Start with a gut sense of an opportunity, and the conversations start rolling.

What do we hate?

A: Our cell phones.

What do we have the technology to make?

A: A cell phone with a Mac inside.

What would we like to own?

A: An iPhone, what else?

But Jobs also explained that in this specific conversation, there were big debates across the organization about whether or not they could and should do it. Ultimately, he looked around and said, “Let’s do it.”

I think it’s clear they also benefit from the inauspicious “leak” to the market. By that I mean this overly tight-lipped organization occasionally leaks early ideas to the market to see what kind of response they might generate. Again, what other company benefits from having thousands of adoring designers come up with beautifully rendered concepts of what they think the next great product should look like?

2. Apple has a very small team who designs their major products. Look at Ive and his team of a dozen to 20 designers who are the brains behind the genius products that Apple has delivered to the market since the iMac back in 1998. New product development is not farmed out across the organization, but instead is creatively driven by this select group of world-class designers.

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About the Authors

  • Alain Breillatt is a product manager with more than 14 years of experience in bringing new products and services to market. His previous professional lives have carried him through medical device R&D, consumer credit, IT management, software product management, and new product consulting at companies including Baxter, Sears, InstallShield, Macrovision, and Kuczmarski & Associates. As a consultant he has generated new product portfolios for Fortune 500 and smaller organizations and developed course materials on innovation for the MBA and Executive Education programs at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

    Alain is a Director of Product Management for The Nielsen Company’s syndicated consumer research solutions. Contact Alain at abreillatt@gmail.com or catch his latest insights at http://pictureimperfect.net.




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