Forget lean methodology if you want to innovate “Steve Jobs style”

By Gaurav Jain 

Steve Jobs is inarguably one of the most successful innovators of our generation. Where most innovators struggle to bring one truly disruptive innovation to market, he easily brought half a dozen, if not more.

Insofar as learning from the “pros” is beneficial, I have spent some time digging into Steve Jobs’ innovation methodology to understand what made his products so much more successful. Below are three key insights that I think made Steve Jobs special:


  1. Build for a future need, don’t just meet today’s: Steve Jobs had a knack for launching products that created a need that didn’t exist before. People were happy with their BlackBerry’s before the iPhone. No one was up in arms that there wasn’t a touchscreen or that a physical keyboard took up half the screen real estate unnecessarily. In fact, users perceived the keyboard as a critical feature and the touchscreen to be a poor interface. Had Jobs shown wireframes of the iPhone to BlackBerry users and asked if they’d switch to an iPhone back in 2007, he would’ve received negative feedback. That’s what I would’ve told him. But Jobs had the foresight to see how the world ought to be and changed the world to get there instead of adapting to it. Lean methodology dictates the opposite: adapt your product to meet the current needs of the customers. I can find similar examples with iTunes (people believed that no one would pay for music when you could download it for free), iPad (Microsoft’s tablet had been a failure, and most users were bearish on the need for a tablet) and many more. Jobs had the intuition to know what customers will demand in the future and the confidence to take the risk and deliver. It worked.

  2. Early feedback can be deceiving: Entrepreneurs want their products to be successful. Too often I see entrepreneurs getting excited about early traction (mostly from early adopters) and extrapolating that to show how the market is dying for their product. You can setup experiments to prove that you will “cross the chasm” and that mainstream users will adopt your product, but I question the validity of such experiments. Mainstream users by definition wait for products to be relatively successful before jumping on the bandwagon. How can you test this in a lab?

  3. Presentation is 50%: Several anecdotes such as “icon ambulance”, “shades of grey for the Apple Store bathroom signs”, and many more point to Jobs’ unwavering attention to detail. Lean methodology, by design, prioritizes time to market and rapid iterations over polish and attention to the minutest details. The focus is to learn from usage patterns and not to deliver an exceptional user experience. I would argue that 50% of Apple’s success can be attributed to their attention to detail -- everything from the unboxing experience to a clean/consistent interface. iPod was not the first or even the only mp3 player with 1GB of storage (Creative launched a 6GB player in 2000), but the fact that everything was delivered in a beautiful package with a “bow” around it made it irresistible. You can certainly experiment early and then polish later but it’s hard to tell when you should “stop learning” and start to polish the product. Moreover, beautiful design and an intuitive user experience cannot be slapped on top of a product, it has to be part of the product from day one.

I am certainly not advocating giving your customers a deaf ear. In fact, applying Jobs’ style would require you to be highly attuned to your customers’ needs so you don’t spend months or years and build something that no one wants. But, innovators should be wary of over relying on customers to tell you what you should build or whether you are building the right thing.

Unfortunately, most of us are not Steve Jobs, but we are all unique, with an interesting set of experiences and perspectives. If you want to change the world, then believe in it and let that show in your innovations. And who knows, you might be onto the next big disruption!


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