The Hidden Driver of Innovation at Apple – Revealed

One of the things that's becoming abundantly clear from reading Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs is that a key to the company's innovation wasn't just Jobs' prodigious talent and relentless drive for creating "insanely great" products. There was also another element that I haven't seen anyone talking about as they eulogize this technology giant.

The unsung driver of innovation at Apple, oddly enough, was a weekly executive meeting that involved all of the operational heads of Apple. Despite his reputation as an autocratic leader, Issacson says Jobs was a fan of open discussion and debate, and encouraged it among his key managers. These meetings would focus on the latest new products Apple was developing, and to envision the next steps for each product line. Discussion could sometimes get acrimonious (with Jobs frequently declaring, “This is shit!”), but he maintained that’s how the best ideas were forged, as a result of rigorous discussion.

This weekly executive meeting helped to ensure that all departments were in early on the process of any new product development, not called in at the last minute – which is what happens at most companies. This collaborative approach helped to keep silos from forming and kept everyone very focused in their efforts. Isaacson describes this leadership style as “tightly integrated,” much like Apple’s products.

Jobs was a minimalist, and preferred to have all operations totally focused on a limited number of key projects. To use an analogy, he pruned unnecessary projects from the company in much the same way that one would prune a tree to help it grow better – a job he had when he was younger, working at a commune/apple farm.

“The key venue for freewheeling discourse was the Monday morning executive team gathering, which started at 9 and went for three or four hours. The focus was always on the future: What should each product do next? What new things should be developed? Jobs used the meeting to enforce a sense of shared mission at Apple. This served to centralize control, which made the company seem as tightly integrated as a good Apple product, and prevented the struggles between divisions that plagued decentralized companies. Jobs also used the meetings to enforce focus.

“At Robert Friedland’s farm, his job had been to prune the apple trees so that they would stay strong, and that became a metaphor for his pruning at Apple. Instead of encouraging each group to let product lines proliferate based on marketing considerations, or permitting a thousand ideas to bloom, Jobs insisted that Apple focus on just two or three priorities at a time.”

Contrast this tightly integrated approach to the ways in which a typical large company operates. Each part of the operation acts as is its own silo. Projects are “thrown over the wall” from marketing to engineering to manufacturing, in linear fashion. Each department, in turn, must figure out how to deal with what the other has wrought. Turf wars are distressingly common. Wasted effort is, too, unfortunately. Who can care about creating “insanely great” products when those bastards in marketing keep changing their minds about what they want?

By keeping the leaders of the key operational areas at Apple on the same page every week and by involving these people rigorous discussion about product planning and strategic development, Apple has been able  to out-innovate nearly every company on the planet.

Related post: Innovating the end-to-end customer experience at Apple

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