Apple's Story: Passion, Patience and Pressure
Apr 25, 2014 6:38 AM PT
True, market-changing, life-changing innovation comes from three key elements: passion, patience and pressure.
Apple is the poster child for this view of innovation. Especially now. Especially when Apple is simply selling millions of profitable iPhones and MacBooks and iPads, quarter after quarter (after quarter) with few truly "new" products to show off.
To create something groundbreaking and new -- like a touchscreen-only smartphone -- you need passion. Not just creativity, but passion -- because passion brings heartfelt focus, and focus is critical for turning a creation into a product.
No one doubted Steve Jobs' passion. You could see it in his eyes, in his posture, in his word choice and cadence. Never mind the behind-closed-doors raging tyrant of passion, Jobs had an intensity most anyone could recognize. And his dirty little secret? Jobs could take other people's creativity, their creations, their passion, and add it to his own.
He seemed to be a super-human science fiction blob who grew more powerful by squeezing, shaping, and ultimately molding the narrative of a product into something he fully, seamlessly seemed to own. Effective? Heck yeah. Repeatable by an intensely ethical man of conscience? Probably not.
Apple CEO Tim Cook is a little tougher to read than Steve Jobs, but I believe there are many passionate creators working for Tim Cook at Apple. As near as I can tell, though, his personality is such that it might be impossible for him to take credit for someone else's passionate creation. If the CEO is such a different animal, how can Apple innovate?
That's the question, really.
Patience, of course, is needed to help you get the product right -- to take your creation, which might be pretty or useful but not necessarily both, and turn it into a product that people not only want, but also are willing to buy. Innovation takes time. Sure, you can release "beta" products for years as a design strategy, but is that inspiring innovation? Not really. Palm-to-forehead innovation requires a hearty dose of patience.
The original iPhone took more than two years of effort inside Apple before it was revealed to the world. If you're going to change the world by getting rid of tactile keyboards by turning smartphones into slabs of touchscreen glass, you need patience to get that right.
So what's going on right now at Apple? Is the company exhibiting patience in its new product design and creation process? Or not? I believe it is. First, consider the Apple TV. If Apple were not patient with this product, it easily could have built its own full-size HDTV with a pretty frame, slapped an Apple TV puck inside to act as its brain, and called it "new and innovative."
Then Apple could have painted it each year with a new kind of translucent plastic or coating... or made the glass curved for no good reason... and Jony Ive could have created sexy, luscious curves to make it feel like a sculpture for your living room.
Consider an "iWatch." Same story. Apple could create a pretty wristband that does little more than count steps and show off text messages. It would sell.
However, Apple hasn't done either of those things. Why? I believe that Apple hasn't released a crappy new TV or smartwatch product because Cook has patience. It's built into the company's culture, because it's very important to Apple that it get it right the first time -- not get it out first. In fact, Tim Cook has been patiently saying this to analysts at every quarterly financial report for years.
Apple seems to know that unimportant new product iterations aren't really needed in the world -- that they don't serve any new special purpose, even though Apple has enough loyal customers to buy anything the company produces. To not build and release a so-called "new" product requires a powerful sense of patience.
The Flip Side of Patience
More recently, in the era of Tim Cook, two key lessons may have been learned. First, Apple's Maps app was a product that Apple released before it was ready. A lack of patience? It seems so.
Without knowing the exact nature of the agreement with Google to provide Google Maps on Apple's iPhone, the release of an important -- and broken -- feature had to remind Cook something about getting the product right the first time.
That's just a special app, though -- a service, a component.
The iPhone 5c, on the other hand, was a new product, born out of analyst and Wall Street pressure to create some sort of lower-priced iPhone. So Apple did that. It messed around with an innovative new plastic build process that created a solid iPhone, but it did not create a groundbreaking new addition to its lineup.
In fact, I believe that Apple did not need the iPhone 5c at all. The company could have continued to sell its iPhone 5 at a lower price point about as easily as it could have created the iPhone 5c. Heck, the iPhone 4s is still selling in surprising numbers and it's a relatively old, slow and small smartphone.
So, a lack of patience produced a lackluster product -- a good product but hardly impressive compared to the previous iPhone 5.
Worse, did the 5c divert attention from more worthy products? I've got to wonder. I'm betting that Apple has learned something from Maps and the 5c.
Pressure, Pressure, Pressure
Meanwhile, passion is cool and patience is good, but neither can produce innovative products again and again. Creative people need pressure to get things done -- pressure to pry their hands from their creation and let it loose in the world. When? When it's perfect enough.
Almost no creative person feels they ever got their book, movie, sculpture, app or iPhone perfect. They can get it right, but rarely perfect. Again, Steve Jobs had the ability to leverage intense pressure. Does Cook?
That's the question right now, immediately following the aftermath of another brilliantly executed financial quarter from Apple.
Is Cook pushing his teams to innovate with the right balance of passion, patience and pressure? Plenty of laptop jockeys seem willing to second guess him.
However there's more to pressure, too -- outside market pressure. Wait too long to deliver a new product, and the market need will evaporate or evolve. Lightning might strike somewhere else, and Apple's loyal consumers might turn to the new light. It happens. Is it happening? Not yet. Not in any meaningful numbers --but it will. Until Apple delivers -- which it will, this year.
Why am I so certain? First, I have faith in the innovation machine that Steve Jobs created. Second, Apple's history of excellent products gives me patience. Third, competitors are starting to produce interesting products, too. That provides the pressure.
This is why -- as I pound the keys on my own MacBook -- I see innovative products on Apple's horizon: It's the lousy products that Apple hasn't created that give me hope.