Guiding Principles of Apple Innovation

If you had to summarize the guiding principles of Apple’s Design and Innovation Strategy what would they be and how might you embrace them to drive new product designs and create new revenue streams from new markets?  




With the help of Chris Morrison, Bruce Nussbaum, Owen Linzmayer, Umair Haque and Daniel Turner, I’ve summarized a draft list of 11 guiding principles that appear to be important to Apple’s innovation strategy.  

1. Don’t follow your Customers; Lead them

Apple tends to place less emphasis on evidence than on intuition, under the theory that consumers can’t tell you they want a product or function if they can’t yet envision it. Instead, they need to be shown a superior alternative. Apple sees itself as being in business to create those revolutionary alternatives.

2. Temper Engineering with Art

Most companies that try to operate like Apple fail. Often that’s because of who they tap to spearhead the creative process. High-tech devices are built by engineers — and often designed by them, too. Unfortunately, engineers tend to design products that they would want to use, which explains why a typical device is jam-packed with a hopelessly confusing array of features.

3. Focus on the Few to sell to the Many

Instead of trying to satisfy every fringe taste or market niche — other companies that make laptops, for instance, often sell dozens of models at any given time — Apple focuses on just a few products in each category.

4. Be your own toughest Critic

Ultimately, Apple succeeds because it not only beats its competitors but also strives each year to beat itself. As management guru Peter Drucker noted long ago, “Your being the one who makes your products, process, or service obsolete is the only way to prevent your competitor from doing so.” In the process of trying to outdo itself, Apple often leaves its competition in the dust.

5. Clear your mind and “Think Different”

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.

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.



6. Build your Innovation infrastructure and Fortress

Apple has flattened sprawling organizational 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.  Rank-and-file employees are often given clear-cut directives and close supervision. Proven talent gets a freer hand, regardless of job title.

7. Cultivate your “Creatives” – the Innovation Elite

Apple 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

8. Institutionalize your “Creatives”

Today, Steve Jobs seems to have learned how to focus his aggressive, take-no-prisoners personality 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.



9. Innovation is not Invention

Innovation is creating something new of value. In the business world, that means creating something new of value that generates revenue and profits. Disruptive innovations that change the game are often business model innovations that integrate five or six or eight different types of innovation.

Apple brought together a legal/business innovation (getting the heads of music studios to agree on 99 cent downloads), a software innovation (the iTunes store) and a great industrial design–the iPod. That’s what makes for powerful disruptive innovation.

10. Organize Something

What happens when we think of using new approaches to reorganize structurally inefficient industries? You get the iPod, the iPhone, the iTablet(?).  One of the deepest secrets hidden at the heart of 21st century economics: markets, networks, and communities can organize economic activities and drive disruptive innovations.  As an extension of the principle “Innovation is not Invention”, using markets, networks and communities to re-organize inefficient industry models while empowering end users has resulted in a number of Apple innovative business models and designs. 


11. MRD + ERD + URD

At Apple there are three evaluations required at the inception of a product idea: a marketing requirement document, an engineering requirement document, and a user-experience requirements document. 


Marketing is what people want; Engineering is what we can do; User Experience is how people like to do things.

These three documents are reviewed by a committee of executives, and if approved, the design group would get a budget, and a team leader would be assigned.  At that point, the team works on expanding the three requirement documents, inserting plans on how they hope to meet the marketing, engineering, and user-experience needs–figures for the release date, ad cycle, pricing details, and the like.   


Thoughts?  What else would you add or what would you change?
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  1. All I can add is a great Steve Jobs anecdote.
    I was at an HBS-organized dinner honoring him, and during the Q&A session, someone had the temerity to ask him, “Dell also makes MP3 players; what makes the iPod so special?”
    Jobs gave the unfortunate soul a withering glance, paused a moment, and then said, with contempt dripping from his voice, “It’s called good taste. Some people have it, some people don’t.”

  2. Chris – You have to like Steve’s view of the world when it comes to design and innovation… and quick comebacks! Thanks for the feedback and follow-up.

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