Most successful IT organizations chose to optimize their organization for either operational excellence, customer intimacy, or innovation. Everything, from competencies, to processes, to even structure need to be aligned to support that strategic anchor. I find it helpful to study organizations that model those anchors to see what we can learn and apply. As a Mac user myself, Apple is a wonderful example of an innovative company. What can we learn about innovation from Apple?
The June 9th issue of The Economist has a cover article entitled "Apple and the Art of Innovation." In this article, and a longer one also in this issue, they talk about the ups and downs of the company, their business struggles and wins, and the influence of Steve Jobs. They also talk about the culture of innovation within the company and I believe we can learn a few things that we could apply to an IT organization striving to be very innovative.
Here are some of the lessons from Apple on innovation:
- Welcome innovation "not invented here." For a company or an IT organization to be innovative, it doesn't mean THEY have to come up with all the great ideas themselves. They need to recognize the possibilities and how the different technologies, processes, information, etc. can be combined to uniquely meet business needs. Apple is great at finding and embracing innovation that occurs outside their walls. The idea of the iPod came from a consultant working on a project, iTunes was bought and then improved, the Mac OS was bought from the Next company, that although Steve Jobs' company, it and Steve were outside of Apple at the time. So be ready to adopt "network innovation" just like companies like Procter and Gamble and BT.
- Pursue Simplicity. Apple designs its products around the needs of their users, and not the demands of technology. Although IT solutions may be complex behind the scenes, they need to be intuitively simple for users. I was just talking with a friend in a company where they just deployed a very expensive and powerful application. The users are disillusioned, "is this all we get?" The IT staff are frustrated because the users are not taking the time to really study all the powerful features and exploit them. Perhaps better design with their users in mind would have helped. I'm not sure how good the iPhone will actually be, but people are going crazy over its perceived simplicity.
- Ignore Focus Groups. This may seem to be a contradiction to the above point, but it's not. Yes it's important to listen to your customers, but we need to do more. We need to understand what customers need, versus what they say they need. Keen observation and imagination are invaluable.
- Fail wisely. When a solution is not working for a company, when they purchased the wrong tool, or wrote the wrong application we then think of "writing off" the investment. This may be a wise accounting thing to do, but we should not write off the knowledge or even technological capital we have gained. We may be able to apply this in the next generation of a solution. The Mac was born from a previous failed attempt, Lisa. The iPhone is coming after a failed attempt with Motorola. Recent Apple computers are based on technology from Next, a company that produced computers that were not very marketable. So, in every failure we can find a gem, but the risk taking culture of an innovative IT organization must be open to it.
Just a few things to keep in mind in our journey towards innovation. Is your organization able to support these ideas?