The Apple Trick to Innovation

Even if you are sitting in an electric power plant, someone somewhere in the organization will say it:

”We need to be more innovative” or “What can we do differently to…?”

Every company needs new and imaginative ideas and the ability to turn those ideas into new or improved products and services.

Now, wouldn’t it be nice if there was an innovation river continually flowing? Just reach in and scoop up that next winning idea to implement?

While Apple seems to own a river, the Conference Board Survey reported that other companies around the world are challenged by it. CEOs ranked innovation as their #1 challenge in 2012 and it has remained in the top 3 since then.

Here’s what I have found. Innovation is a challenge largely due to two misunderstandings:
1. The innovative process itself
2. Management’s role in switching on the process

Look at Einstein.

What did it take for Einstein to devise groundbreaking theories?

It took knowledge and continued learning along with extended periods of concentrated thinking, figuring, imagining, postulating, experimenting, testing, failing, and rededication after the failures, all of which required passion and commitment.

But the most important ingredient was freedom…the freedom to expend his energies and his brainpower as he saw fit.

Einstein wasn’t told what was the right way to look at something or the wrong way. He wasn’t told how to think or what objectives to meet. There were no limitations. He was autonomous, free from oversight or direction and free to use all of his faculties – his knowledge, experience, skills, etc.

The process and requirements for innovation are the same for everyone as for Einstein.

Being innovative depends on our willingness to use our brainpower and on our ability to harness everything that resides in or is controlled by our brain. The more we use our brainpower, the better we become at creating and innovating.

So, innovation requires turning on the brain and this is exactly what Apple does.

Apple maintains a river of innovation by supplying freedom. It is embedded in their culture, in their operating structure and in their people management and leadership style. Steve Jobs hired good people and then allowed them the freedom to do their work. He focused on being the protector of high standards, while his people were enabled to think and act freely to reach higher.

Others mistakenly flip the innovation switch off.

This brings us back to the pervasive top-down command and control leadership style I presented in The Biggest Mistake Managers Make.

”Ford had the benefit of my hands for 30 years, but for no more money they could have had the use of my brain.” – UK Ford Motor Company Retiree

Top-down is about bending employees to the will of management through orders, goals, targets, policies, procedures, visions, objectives, et al – what “management has decided” is best.

Top-down is not about allowing people the freedom to act on their own and thus tends to turn brains off. It sounds like:

“We don’t do it that way around here.”
“We want it to look like…”
“That isn’t possible. We don’t have… We can’t…”
“Here are the goals and objectives we must meet this year.”
And all the “don’t make waves” inferences.

Here’s one response to that from a high-performing digital technology team in a 360 Review: “Why do we even bother – they don’t listen anyway. It’s a waste of time to think.”

Management’s role is to turn all brains on.

You simply cannot direct a person to be innovative. What you can do, though, is to help them and lead them to be innovative – to use their capacity to think freely and to develop a strong desire to do so readily.

Who'd have thunk it? Smart Paint for Walls

Who’d have thunk it? Smart Paint for Walls

Also, you can’t know what creativity and innovation a particular person has within them. Everyone has different abilities and different motivations, knowledge, experience, skills and intelligence. This is why you want to turn all brains on.

Whether you run a café, a team of coders, a marketing group, or a multi-national company, you just don’t know who will supply the next little-big idea.

The trick is to get management out of the way. Enable freedom and autonomy to make certain you harness every ounce of brainpower.

And if you want to know what will “enable” them, ask people directly – like Steve Jobs did: “What do you need to get XYZ done?”

As was the case with commitment and motivation, only you as the boss have the power to make this happen.

Let ‘em loose!


This is part 4 of a six-part series to dispel some common misconceptions that trip up managers – causing you to lead in the wrong direction, producing unintended consequences.

Go to Don’t Get Tripped Up to access the entire series.

If you have any questions, email Ben.

And please, if you have friends, family or colleagues that might be interested in honing and strengthening their leadership skills, share this with them.

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