For a news industry addicted to page views, Apple is the gift that keeps on giving. Perhaps it's because people are caught up in the drama of whether the company can keep its momentum post-Steve Jobs. Some see Apple as invincible, its success as inimitable and its shares as undervalued, while others claim it has already peaked, or even that its decline is inevitable and demise imminent. (Given its current approximate market cap, we could call this the $640 billion dollar question.)
In any case, the headlines on business pages have moved in rapid succession from its billion-dollar court battle with Samsung, to the iPhone 5's launch, to the controversy over the Maps app in iOS 6. Most companies dream of a media so compliant that it would print their press releases. For this company, even its emails about impending press releases get pickup. Witness last week's coverage of invitations to the event being held today.
While I'm not above the feverish speculation about what exactly will be unveiled, the phrasing of the message struck me as having something to say about Apple's approach to innovation deeper than just one product launch. "We've got a little more to show you," the announcement to the press event teases. Yes, Apple's marketers are being coy. The launch is of something "little"—the iPad mini—that offers something more. At the same time, the word recalls an article of faith for the company, that little can be more.
Start with the discipline that puts the focus on fewer products made better. While conventional wisdom and common practice drive most of its competitors to ever-greater product proliferation, Apple keeps its offerings pruned, invests more in the creation of each new product, and hence makes products that work better for customers. As I heard Tim Cook put it at D10 this year: "Our north star is to make the best product. Our objective isn't to make this design for this kind of price point, or for this arbitrary schedule, or line up other things or have x number of phones. It's to build the best."
For customers, that focus simplifies choices. Although conventional wisdom holds that it's always better to have more choices, this is true only up to a point. As Barry Schwartz has explained, too many choices confuse customers, and that can make them unhappy. He cites research showing that, given too much choice, "consumers are less likely to buy anything at all, and if they do buy, they are less satisfied with their selections."
Doing little and more seems to be a good strategy when it comes to R&D, too. Apple's success comes despite spending much less than its peers on research and development. It spends about 3% of revenues; other technology titans such as Microsoft, Google, and Nokia spend multiples of this&/38212;in some cases, several times as much. This isn't only a recent reality. I remember noting Apple's outstanding R&D productivity as an outlier back in the iPod era. In 2007, prior to the original iPhone's launch, The Economist underscored it again.Of course we know that, as research by Booz [pdf] back in 2005 demonstrated, "Money doesn't buy results." Its analysis found "no relationship between R&D spending and ... measures of ... corporate success, such as growth, ... profitability, and shareholder return." The key to realizing returns is to focus on the most promising projects.
As simple as this sounds, surprisingly few organizations do it. Unfortunately, saying what you won't do is harder than saying what you will do. Greg McKeown captured this well in a post quoting Steve Jobs: "People think focus means saying 'yes' to the thing you've got to focus on. But that's not what it means at all. It means saying 'no' to the hundred other good ideas that there are."
The trick is knowing what to "just say no" to—and what really deserves a yes. In innovation and product creation, that requires:
- Good decision-making process, fueled by ...
- insight into what customers will want and need, informed by ...
- foresight into emerging technologies and their trajectories
The right process brings the right people to the table—the "product guys" as Bob Lutz called them, who really get the customers and the trade-offs they are forced to make today. A good process also keeps the focus on the right criteria, insisting that the key to success is not the state of the technology, or diversity of products being pumped out, or number of features, but instead how delightful your products are, how simple they are, how easy they are to use.
Customer insight has to anticipate what customers will want, even when they don't know it themselves. Unfortunately, you can't figure this out by asking them; they just don't know. First, rather than focusing narrowly on products and their attributes, you have to look at the whole of the customer experience, what customers are doing before, during and after they use the product, and the contexts within which they use it. Second, because you can't ask them, you have to observe them empathically and interpret their actions.
Foresight with regard to enabling technologies helps reveal how those deep customer needs might be met. Only by tracking the evolution of various technologies can you have what Roberto Verganti calls 'technological epiphanies"—ideas for how enabling technologies could combine to deliver delight. Wayne Gretzky famously explained his success as a hockey player by saying: "I skate to where the puck is going to be." Technology moves fast, and customer desires right behind it. It's a losing strategy to move toward where it is today.
Apple has thrived, and will continue to do so, because (amongst other things) it thinks differently about innovation and product creation; it's not magic, however, and there's no wizardry involved. Although Steve Jobs's genius undoubtedly contributed, there are valuable lessons in what Apple does that anyone involved in creating new products can apply. Apple's innovations emerge from a systematic and sustained application of what are in fact well established, if not (yet) widely understood, principles, and practices. It aims for little, more—and enjoys a lot more success as a result.