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Apple as a Model for Innovation Management

Apple’s a great company. They’re innovative, profitable, and successful. They’re used everywhere as a model of what innovative companies should do and be. In fact, I get applause in my exec ed classes when I say I won’t use Apple stories to illustrate innovation concepts – everyone’s heard every story before.

Apple’s a great company. They’re innovative, profitable, and successful. They’re used everywhere as a model of what innovative companies should do and be. In fact, I get applause in my exec ed classes when I say I won’t use Apple stories to illustrate innovation concepts – everyone’s heard every story before. But here’s the problem: they’re a lousy model for how to manage innovation.

Say you’re working for a company that wants to become more innovative, and decides to imitate Apple. What’s the formula for creating the Apple innovation management system in your company? It would be something like this:
1) Find a brilliant innovator like Steve Jobs
2) Promote him to the top of your company (remember – you’re working for a company that wants to become more innovative. You don’t have the luxury of starting up something new.)
3) Run all major innovation initiatives through him

What are the problems with this?

  1. People like Steve Jobs don’t come around that often. When they do, they’re often not attracted to corporate jobs.
  2. When they do come to work for companies, they’re often difficult to manage and direct. Consider the story from Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs: in his first job for Atari, Steve was arrogant, mediocre, and smelled bad. He was convinced that because of his diet he didn’t need to shower. He was forced to work the night shift to keep him away from the other workers. This is the type of person a company should promote to the top? Remember that Jobs got fired from Apple in 1985!
  3. Even if you can find a brilliant innovator, keep him in the company, and let him rise to the top, do you really want to make him the center of your innovation efforts? Will he become a bottleneck? What if he gets sick? What happens if he gets disgruntled and leaves? Where does that leave your company?

It could be that Apple’s real management system is less Steve-dependent than the business press view of it – if so, we’ll find out soon. But my point is that using a the business press view of Apple as a model of innovation management is difficult to do and unlikely to be sustainable.

Posted by Mackenzie B.
On September 13, 2012
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