By: Andrew J. Sherman
Jobs had a spectacular innovation compass; some of its directions can guide our inner innovators too, according to Andrew Sherman.
When I heard the news of Steve Jobs’s death last Wednesday evening, my first thought was of how much Jobs accomplished with so little time.
In the last ten years, Jobs changed the paradigm of human-technology interaction completely. His company released a new, enticing product at least once a year, creating and then satisfying enormous consumer demand. In his short life he rebounded from serious public failures. And he grew a multi-billion dollar company from nothing—twice.
For Jobs, money was of little consequence. He earned a dollar per year during his second stint as Apple CEO. He professed that his success was motivated by passion and his desire to “make a ding in the universe.”
Jobs’s ding is significant. His capacity for innovation was amplified by the looming shadow of his own mortality, and his passion inspired a generation of Apple users and enthusiasts with superior products and a reminder of what a single person is capable of when passion and ability meet a great idea.
For Jobs, innovation at Apple was a certainty. But for many of us, innovation is really difficult. We know the importance of innovation, but actually innovating on a sustainable and continued basis is often so elusive that I wonder whether we are inspiring innovation, or implicitly conspiring against it through our failure to provide guidance to ourselves, our teams, and our companies.
Jobs had a spectacular innovation compass; some of its directions can guide our inner innovators, too:
1. Follow your passion. Jobs’s genius was magnified by his enthusiasm for innovation, his work and for his company. In his 2005 commencement speech at Stanford, Jobs said “You’ve got to find what you love and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work, and the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking, and don’t settle.” Innovation in our work requires ideas, and ideas come easiest when we are passionate about what we do.
2. Meet a customer need. A decade ago, our best bet for mobile music was a Discman. Since the Discman was bulky, heavy, prone to skipping, and required CDs, most of us didn’t make listening to music on the street part of our everyday lives. The IPod changed that as it went from being unimaginable to shifting the paradigm of mobile music entirely in just a few years. Jobs’s innovation made high quality music available in small, beautiful, and durable packages. The IPod was possible because Jobs believed that sometimes, there is a huge market for something people don’t even know they want. In a January 2000 interview with Fortune, Jobs explained innovating from within the company. He said . . . “that doesn’t mean we don’t listen to customers, but it’s hard for them to tell you what they want when they’ve never seen anything remotely like it.”
3. Keep it simple. Jobs knew that innovations had to go through the ringer before they would be market-ready. In a 2006 interview with MSNBC and Newsweek, he explained “when you first start off trying to solve a problem, the first solutions you come up with are very complex, and most people stop there. But if you keep going, and live with the problem and peel more layers of the onion off, you can often times arrive at some very elegant and simple solutions. Most people just don’t put in the time or energy to get there. We believe that customers are smart, and want objects which are well thought through.” Jobs proved the value of innovating towards simplicity and usability.
4. Know when to say “no.” Innovation can come from anywhere, and companies with innovation cultures have fair, consistent systems for vetting ideas. Successful implementation requires focus on the products most likely to move the company forward, and sometimes this means saying “no” to good ideas. In a 2004 interview with BusinessWeek, Jobs said “innovation . . . comes from saying no to 1,000 things to make sure we don’t get on the wrong track or try to do too much. We’re always thinking about new markets we could enter, but it’s only by saying no that you can concentrate on the things that are really important.”
“It’s not about money. It’s about the people you have, how you’re led, and how much you get it.”
5. Keep money in perspective. Innovation can be very expensive. But it doesn’t have to be. Jobs knew that he was outmatched in terms of spending by peer companies, but he wasn’t deterred. In a 1998 interview with Fortune, Jobs said, “innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100 times more on R&D. It’s not about money. It’s about the people you have, how you’re led, and how much you get it.”
6. Come back from failure. Jobs was ousted, very publicly, from his own company. He admits that he thought about running away from Silicon Valley. But when he realized how much he loved his work, he rebounded with a new kind of innovation. He started Next and invested some of his fortune in Pixar. When Pixar was bought by Apple, Jobs was back in as interim CEO. The position became permanent in 2000. The same philosophy applies to the failed innovations that we really believe in. Sometimes, the innovation can be successfully resurrected when times and conditions are little different.
Jobs was an unparalleled innovator with a drive to make a mark on the universe and a passion for technology. For most of us, making a dent begins by making a scratch on our own lives, and in our work.
Jobs and his company are responsible for the personal computer, for hand held devices, for changing what humans extract from technology. He is one of the greatest innovators of all time, and uniquely beloved by the public not only for his ability to tap in to human desire, but to inspire innovation among others. How will you make a dent with innovation?
Andrew J. Sherman, a strategic growth and innovation expert and a partner in the Washington, D.C. office of Jones Day. His new book, Harvesting Intangible Assets: Uncover Hidden Revenue in Your Company’s Intellectual Property, is available on Amazon.