Desirable Innovations

The missing Steve Jobs innovation decade at Apple

Innovation occurs at the intersection of the possible and desirable.

(you better quote me when you repeat that)

While filtering a thread concerning Apple and the missing Steve Jobs decade, the subject of innovation erupted. Though an incomplete assessment, it seems plain enough that one man can (and did) guide the innovative soul of an enterprise. Though some people like to anoint Jobs as the patron saint of innovation, he simply saw what was desirable and beautiful, and what was technically possible. He then bred the two.

The missing Steve Jobs innovation decade at AppleMinor innovation occurs daily here in Silicon Valley. People who twiddle bits and assemble breadboards, and who carry on conversations with customers, continually find and build innovations of the lesser variety. Small improvements in what people do and how they do it constantly reduce business overhead, ease production, or make consumer gizmos more usable.

Yet minor innovations are the product of very specific need/gap observations. There is no real eureka moment, no instant glow of inspiration. Often these innovations come from a customer merely saying “it would be nice if I could do thus-and-such” within ear shot of a techie. I once overheard a conversation between a customer attending a training class and our lead developer. After lunch the developer came into the room and told the customer that his suggestion was now a feature.

Jobs-level innovations are a similar but different beast. Where Apple, Google and others excel is identifying what the customer does not know is desirable. When Jobs pushed the Apple Lisa into the world, he knew that communication was a collection of abstracts which could not be completely performed in ASCII on green screens monitors. Pictures, fonts, colors, music are communication tools and humans are a communicative species. He saw what people desired – fluidity in communications – and saw that computing technology had become capable of melding it all.

I doubt a customer told him that is what they wanted.

The same could be said for iPhones. Voice, photographs, emails, text messages … none of these were Apple inventions. But the seamless and simple facilitation of all these modes of communicating were now shoved into peoples’ pockets so they could communicate in the mode they wanted at any time they wanted.

I doubt a customer told Jobs that is what they desired.

When building your organization, you need both forms of innovation. But you yourself don’t need to be a Jobs-caliber visionary. You need to encourage your staff to explore humans and what people desire. Few folks buy the undesirable, and yet they don’t always know or articulate what they do desire. You can only create the desirable once you know what it is.


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