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Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Processes of Innovation at Google and Apple: Clash of the Titans

How exactly innovation reaches the surface of human consciousness, and how widespread this process is or could be, elude our finite grasp even if particular managers assume the potion can be applied in our bewindowed linear towers. It is all too easy to willow the question down to a matter of which floor is best suited—the top or the lower ones. We can contrast the approaches at Google and Apple (under Steve Jobs) to understand just how little we know about innovation, which is ironic as we are living in an age in which change is the only constant.

The ways in which the folks at Google and Apple have sought to capture innovation can together be taken as illustrative of the “archetypical tension in the creative process.” So says John Kao, an innovation consultant to corporations as well as governments. Regarding Google, the company’s innovation method relies “on rapid experimentation and data. The company constantly refines its search, advertising marketplace, e-mail and other services, depending on how people use its online offerings. It takes a bottom-up approach: customers are participants, essentially becoming partners in product design.” To be sure, customers, or "users," are not “participants” in a company; neither, I suspect, are subordinates. As stakeholders to be appeased, neither customers (or "guests" at Target) nor employees (or "partners" at Starbucks) can be reckoned as "participants." 

The innovation method at Google is inductive, meaning that major product improvements come at least in part from going over the feedback of individual customers. According to the New York Times, “Google speaks to the power of data-driven decision-making, and of online experimentation and networked communication. The same Internet-era tools enable crowd-sourced collaboration as well as the rapid testing of product ideas — the essence of the lean start-up method so popular in Silicon Valley and elsewhere.” The emphasis here should be placed on a multitude of specific product ideas rather than on the collaboration, for “while networked communications and marketplace experiments add useful information, breakthrough ideas still come from individuals, not committees.” As Paul Saffo, a technology forecaster in Silicon Valley, observes, “There is nothing democratic about innovation. It is always an elite activity, whether by a recognized or unrecognized elite.” Therefore, we can dismiss the presumptuous use of "participant" to describe the inclusive involvement of customers. 

The Times goes on to describe the "Apple model" (under Jobs) as "more edited, intuitive and top-down. When asked what market research went into the company’s elegant product designs, Steve Jobs had a standard answer: none. ‘It’s not the consumers’ job to know what they want.'" Jobs strikes me here as an autocrat or aristocrat of sorts pointing out that the masses don’t really know what they want. The Dowager Countess of Grantham, a character in the PBS serial Downton Abbey, would doubtless readily agree. The assumption that transformative innovation can only come from an elite fits with Apple’s deductive approach wherein a few true visionaries, such as Jobs himself, at the top present the innovative product ideas (e.g., ipod, ipad, smartphone) to be implemented by subordinates. Clearly, neither employees nor customers are participants in this approach.

King Steve Jobs. Does transformative innovation depend on visionary leadership?  (Image Source: www.fakesteve.net)

The tension between the two approaches comes down to their respective assumptions concerning whether many people or just a few are innately creative in relating imagination back to "the real world" co-exist only in tension; each of the assumptions is antagonistic toward the other. In the political realm, the same tension manifests in terms of whether a democracy is likely to end in mob rule and aristocracy in plutocracy (the rule of wealth). 

As elitist as Job’s statement may be even with respect to employees, he may have had a point that virtually no customer could have anticipated the ipad even five years before it was designed inside Apple. Moreover, it is nearly impossible to project in the 2010s what daily life will be like for people living in 2050. Could anyone in 1914 have anticipated the movies and airplanes that were commonplace by 1950?  People alive just before World War I broke out on August 10, 2014 were still getting used to the electric light, the telephone, and the strange horseless, or auto, “carriage.” As the Dowager Countess remarks in an early episode of Downton Abbey, “First electricity, now telephones. Sometimes I feel as if I’m living in an H.G. Wells novel.” As for electricity in her house, she provides an explanation that might remind us a century later of the advent of cell phones amid concerns about brain cancer. “I couldn’t have electricity in the house,” the countess insists. “I couldn’t sleep a wink. All those vapours seeping about.”

A century later, only from retrospect can we say that the smart phone and ipad had been inevitable developments of computer technology. Anticipating innovation, let alone figuring out  how to institutionalize it, provides a glimpse of a wholesale deficiency in the human brain. The sheer distance between the respective assumptions at Apple (under Jobs) and Google demonstrates just how little we as a species know about the emergence of creativity. Should we concentrate on uncovering gems like Steve Jobs, or spread out our attention to a thousand points of light? Making matters worse, the human brain may be designed to be oriented predominantly backward (with the very significant exception of anticipating an upcoming danger, such as a predator), rather than to predicting even the next transformational innovation.  

Steve Lohr, “The Yin and the Yang of Corporate Innovation,” The New York Times, January 28, 2012.