Apple’s lessons on innovation

The Economist, June 9 - 15 2007Apple is featured on the cover of this week’s Economist (subscription required). For those of us whose daily work is so intertwined with Apple’s wares, there is not much new ground covered, though I was a little surprised the Economist joined the herd by fawning over the new iPhone. The leader is about innovation, the featured article about the rise, fall, and rise again of Steve Jobs.

Though not as sexy because they don’t sell consumer electronics, Adobe actually does a better job of acquiring and integrating outside innovations than any company I know. Flash and After Effects are prime examples. (How’s this for proof?) Avid does a great job of targeting acquisitions, but the track record is uneven in the area of integration. Think Pinnacle, ProTools, and Softimage.

This little bit caught my eye.

The first is that innovation can come from without as well as within. Apple is widely assumed to be an innovator in the tradition of Thomas Edison or Bell Laboratories, locking its engineers away to cook up new ideas and basing products on their moments of inspiration. In fact, its real skill lies in stitching together its own ideas with technologies from outside and then wrapping the results in elegant software and stylish design. The idea for the iPod, for example, was originally dreamt up by a consultant whom Apple hired to run the project. It was assembled by combining off-the-shelf parts with in-house ingredients such as its distinctive, easily used system of controls. And it was designed to work closely with Apple’s iTunes jukebox software, which was also bought in and then overhauled and improved.

That’s the same path that Final Cut Pro, Motion, and Color took to our suites, and there’s a lesson in that. The not invented here attitude is the scourge of every industry, every business. How many times have you sat in a meeting and dismissed an idea because it came from somewhere else?

It’s human nature to view all processes, even the creative process, as a zero sum game. If my colleague or competitor’s idea is used, it’s somehow got to be at my expense. I’ve watched clients remove themselves from the realm of relevance by steadfastly refusing embrace ideas from the outside. I’ve also watched clients and colleagues take their games to the next level, synthesizing the best of the rest with their own ideas.

It’s extremely difficult for someone who makes a living selling his creative output to go into a pitch meeting and actually listen. We have to have all the answers, or else the client won’t hire us. We can’t acknowledge the genius of a competitors approach, or we’ll look over matched. To really succeed and take our game to the next level, we have to do those things.

If we learn from Apple’s example, it will serve us better than any tool the company will ever sell us.

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