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How Apple Makes Great Products

Posted on December 16, 2014

When studying innovation two things become apparent:

1. Apple is one of the most innovative companies in the world

2. Innovation requires an openness to new ideas and a tolerance for different views.

Taken separately, these two statements make perfect sense. Unfortunately, taken together they make no sense.

As anyone who has read Steve Jobs' best selling bio knows, Jobs was not, ahem, a bottom-up manager who was deeply in touch with his employees. Rather he was a legendary micro-manager and a ruthless perfectionist.

Apple the company is also secretive about new products to the point of being comical. Jobs famously believed customers didn't know what they wanted until he gave it to them. His goal was to stay ahead of his customers' wants. The concept of "crowd-sourcing" new product ideas would, undoubtedly, made him laugh.

Given this top-down management style and impenetrable secrecy, how does Apple consistently produce industry-changing innovation? As Steven Johnson notes in his book "Where Good Ideas Come From", the differentiator at Apple is the environment Jobs created within Apple's fortress-like walls.

Employee Engagement

Johnson notes innovation is largely driven by a clash of ideas, the meeting of different points of view. The book cites Watson and Crick, in their discovery the double helix structure of DNA, calling upon different fields of study - biochemistry, genetics, information theory and mathematics - to produce their Nobel prize winning discovery. There was no one discipline that could solve the riddle, rather a collection of several.

This is the model Jobs created within the walls of Apple. In most traditional companies products are produced in a linear chain - designers come up with a look and hand it off to engineers who then hand it off to manufacturing who then hand it off to sales. Producing goods in this linear model is wonderful for efficiency but has a deleterious effect on creativity - the product gets watered down on each transition. Engineers can implement only a percentage of the design and manufacturing can only implement a percentage of the blueprint from engineering. Sales is left to market a product that is weaker than anyone planned.

To avoid this, Apple instead practices what it calls "concurrent processing." In this system, all the groups - design, manufacturing, engineering and sales - meet continuously during product development to offer their perspective. While this can result in meetings that are more contentious than traditional meetings, it also has produced the iPhone and the world's most valuable company.

The Key to Appleā€™s Success

The key to creating an innovation engine like Apple's is to maintain an open system of internal communication within the company, a system where employee suggestions are noted and valued in the creation process. It can be a challenging prospect, but the rewards are, as shown by Apple, potentially enormous.

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