The art of innovation

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“Innovation is the specific instrument of entrepreneurship … the act that endows resources with a new capacity to create wealth.” — Peter Drucker

Peter Drucker was right: Innovation is what creates wealth. Innovation had better create wealth because it’s so damn hard to do. The purpose of this piece is to explain the principles of innovation I learned in the trenches of Apple Inc., the three companies I started and the dozens of companies I’ve advised. I wish I could tell you I did all these things right. That would be a lie. Do as I say — not as I did.

1. Make meaning. Determine how you can change the world — to do something that is truly meaningful. Apple democratized computers. Google democratized information. eBay wanted to democratize commerce. These companies made meaning, and by making meaning, they also ended up making money.

2. Make mantra. Your mantra should be a three- to four-word mantra that explains why you make meaning. For example, I think Nike’s mantra should be “authentic athletic performance,” and eBay’s should be “democratize commerce.” My personal mantra is “empower people.” Bottom line: A mantra explains why you should exist.

3. Jump to the next curve. Too many companies duke it out on the same curve. There was an ice-harvesting industry in the 1880s. During the winter, companies would cut blocks of ice. Ice factories put them out of business because they weren’t limited to cold climates. Refrigerator companies, in turn, put ice factories out of business because of the added convenience of personal chillers, or PCs. True innovation occurs when you jump to the next curve — or better yet, invent the next curve.

4. Great products are DICEE: Deep, Intelligent, Complete, Empowering and Elegant. Deep means lots of features and power. Intelligent means the company understood your pain and what you needed. Complete means a company provides a satisfying total solution. Empowering means your product makes people better rather than fighting your customer. And Elegant means that your products are well-designed.

5. Don’t worry; be crappy. Don’t worry about shipping an innovative product with elements of crappiness. The first permutation of an innovation is seldom perfect — Macintosh, for example, didn’t have software (thanks to me), a hard disk (it wouldn’t matter with no software anyway), slots and color. If a company waits until everything is perfect, it will never ship, and the market will pass it by.

6. “Let a hundred flowers blossom.” I stole this from Mao Zedong. Innovators need to be flexible about how people use their products. Avon created Skin So Soft to soften skin, but when parents used it as an insect repellant, Avon went with the flow. Apple thought it created a spreadsheet/database/word-processing computer but came to find out customers used it as a desktop publishing machine. The lesson is to sow fields, not flower boxes, and to let a hundred flowers blossom.

7. Don’t be afraid to polarize people. Most companies want to create the holy grail of products that appeals to every demographic, socio-economic background and geographic location. To attempt to do so guarantees mediocrity. Instead, create great products that make segments of people very happy. And fear not if these products make other segments unhappy. The worst case is to incite no reactions at all, and that happens when companies try to make everyone happy.

8. Churn, baby, churn. I’m saying it’s OK to ship with elements of crappiness — I’m not saying that it’s OK to stay crappy. A company must improve version 1.0 and create version 1.1, 1.2, … 2.0. This is a difficult lesson to learn because it’s so hard to ship an innovation; therefore, the last thing employees want to deal with is complaints about their perfect baby. Innovation is a process, not an event.

9. Niche thyself. The holy grail of innovation is to create a product that is unique and valuable. When you do so, you make meaning, margin and history. If you’re an engineer, you make a product that’s unique and valuable. If you’re a marketing person, you communicate to the world that your product is unique and valuable.

10. Perfect your pitch. There are three keys to a perfect pitch: First, customize your introduction. You need to demonstrate to your audience you care enough to personalize your pitch. Second, sell your dream for your product by explaining how it can change lives. Stop using industry jargon and explain the benefits of owning your product. Third, use the 10-20-30 rules for slides on your presentation: 10 slides, 20 minutes and 30-sized font.

11. Don’t let the bozos grind you down. The bozos will tell you what you’re trying can’t be done, shouldn’t be done and isn’t necessary. Some bozos are clearly losers — they are easy to ignore. The rich, famous and powerful bozos are the dangerous ones because people think they are smart. However, maybe they were just lucky, and they cannot comprehend, much less embrace, the next curve.

Innovation is so easy to read (or write) about and so hard to do. These 11 points are the cornerstones of innovation, but your task comes down to not resting until you make meaning and jump curves.

Guy Kawasaki is the former chief evangelist of Apple and special advisor to the Motorola business unit of Google. He is the author of APE, What the Plus!, Enchantment, and nine other books. Kawasaki has a BA from Stanford University and an MBA from UCLA as well as an honorary doctorate from Babson College.

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