What My 15-Plus Years at Apple Taught Me About Building Innovation from Scratch
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Innovation is like El Dorado -- it's the X on the treasure map everyone involved in creative and technical work wants to find. When trying to start a venture or build a business, developing a novel idea or approach might be the difference between success and failure. Yet, innovative results don't exist when you start out to make them. There is no map. Producing innovation is never an epiphany. It's important to have a vision, but that's never enough by itself. The truly significant work of innovation comes as a daily exercise of isolating elements, and of finding the everyday actions that yield small-scale progress. I've coined the term "creative selection" to refer to this process of accumulating this day-by-day progress over time to yield interesting and innovative new work.
Our results with these Apple products speak for themselves, but we didn't talk about this approach explicitly. We were lucky to have a visionary leader to give us an initial boost -- Steve Jobs himself set our innovative culture in motion, but it was only after I left Apple in 2017, that I went back, in retrospect, to pick out the list of elements that formed the core of our efforts to innovate through each iteration of every design. If you want to kindle an Apple-style creative environment from scratch for yourself, you'll need to start somewhere. Creative selection begins small, and I suggest you begin by considering the seven essential elements we used to create products like the iPhone:
- Inspiration: Thinking big ideas and imagining what might be possible
- Collaboration: Working together well with other people and seeking to combine your complementary strengths
- Craft: Applying skill to achieve high-quality results and always striving to do better
- Diligence: Doing the necessary grunt work and never resorting to shortcuts or half measures
- Decisiveness: Making tough choices and refusing to delay or procrastinate
- Taste: Developing a refined sense of judgment and finding the balance that produces a pleasing and integrated whole
- Empathy: Trying to see the world from other people's perspective and creating work that fits into their lives and adapts to their needs
These elements served as our source material as we tried to develop innovative high-tech products. It took inspiration to envision how to use touch for the iPhone user interface. We combined collaboration, craft and taste to make a long succession of demos as we developed products. Of course, we worked diligently, but we also channeled our efforts by making hard choices about what to focus on. Empathy was at the heart of our aspiration to create products people could use without tearing their hair out. Mixing and combining these essential elements made up our daily action loop at Apple. When I recall the work I did on the original iPhone, I think of how a specific demo I gave to Steve Jobs on a certain day was decisive and inspiring, and how his feedback was a perfect summation of his excellent taste in products.
If your work and your goals are the same as we had at Apple -- to develop innovative high-tech products -- you might adopt these same essential elements for yourself. They work. If you're in a different field, the elements might need to change. Figuring this out will require you to undertake the same kind of self-reflection that I did once my Apple career was finished. Perhaps you'll see the need to tune the list or develop subtly different shades of meaning for an individual element. For example, a sports coach might decide to switch out taste and empathy, replacing them with toughness and competitiveness. A heart surgeon at a research hospital almost certainly should swap empathy back in, but might rework its definition in terms of patient outcomes instead of creative work.
My point is that this identification process helped me to understand why our work at Apple came out as well as it did. I suggest this identification process as a useful exercise. Contemplate your daily routine, examine what you do every day, and decompose your actions. As you do, tag them with one of these elements, and as I just described in the previous paragraph, think about how they contribute to a bigger picture. Make note of both positive and negative patterns of behavior -- and obviously, try to push for more of the positive.
Of course, there are no guarantees. Innovation isn't easy. But, by breaking down the concept of innovation into pieces you can recognize and work on every day, and taking note of how small daily efforts add up into larger results over time, and by defining your own process of evolutionary creative selection, you might bring yourself closer to developing the next big thing.