The innovation Secrets of Steve Jobs

Feeling uninspired lately, I picked up this book from the library nearby. It is a pretty well written book that details the Seven Principles of Innovation, inspired by Steve Job. This post will be a summary of the 7 principles listed in the book, peppered with some of my own views.

Here are the 7 principles:

  • Do What You Love. Think differently about your career.
  • Put a dent in the Universe. Think differently about your vision.
  • Kick Start Your Brain. Think differently about how you think.
  • Sell Dreams, Not Products. Think differently about your customer.
  • Say No to 1000 Things. Think differently about design.
  • Create Insanely Great Experiences. Think differently about your brand experience.
  • Master the Message. Think differently about your story.

PRINCIPLE 1: Do What You Love. Think differently about your career.

Steve Jobs dropped out of Reed College when he didn’t see value in obtaining a college education. Unlike Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg who famously dropped out of Harvard to start their own respective businesses, Jobs was in the middle of crossroads. As quoted from him in the book, “I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life”. After dropping out, he began dropping in on classes which interest him, one of it being a calligraphy course which he found fascinating and at the time rather random and inapplicable. The skills he learned proved to be useful many years later where he gained inspiration from it to introduce multiple typefaces fonts in Mac. This was later adopted on Windows PCs and became a common functionality in modern computers.

“Dots do not connect looking forward. Dots connect only when you look backward. You must trust that, by following your curiosity, the pieces will ultimately fit.”

The moral of this story is that: Follow your heart and everything will turn out well. If you have interests outside of your main work, give it a try. These accumulated experiences or side passion hobbies might just come in handy in the future or inspire you to start something great. The worst case is only that you decide you hate it, and go back to the life you had before. No big issue.

This may seem rather cliché but I recall that, in many of the interviews whereby the star is asked what advice he/she would give the audience, most of them would say the same thing about following your passion and dreams. When you are able to pursue your passion, new sparks can be produced and the likelihood of producing something great is higher. Even if you face billions of naysayers or countless setbacks, it is your passion that will keep the fire within you burning hot and keep you moving forward.

Personally, I think I have picked up many passion hobbies in the 20+ years of my life. They range from Sports, Reading, Beading, Arts & Craft and many more. However, I don’t think I have found a passion that is big enough for me to say, “I have to do this! Even if my life is at stake, I will still do it”.

If you are lucky, you discover your passion early on and can have the chance to pursue it. I am pretty sure that there exists some individuals out there like me, who feel that they haven’t found their passion or even refuse to acknowledge their passion. Fret not, here is what Steve Jobs has to say about this during his commencement speech to the 2005 cohort of Stanford graduates.

“If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.”

How does this relate to Innovation? Innovation is birthed when you have a fiery passion, with such intensity that you obsess over those ideas and cannot imagine doing anything else. Thinking about the subject obsessively consumes you, nourishes you and eventually inspires you to create breakthrough companies, products, and services.

With the above being said, that passion is the key driving force behind innovation, it alone isn’t enough. Aptitude has to go hand in hand with passion. With this combination, you can definitely change the world.

Hmm, aptitude? Well, what if I am bad at most things I attempt? Well, logically speaking, aptitude is definitely a must-have in order to do things well. Imagine a singer who has a terrible voice. No matter how passionate he/she is about singing, he/she will never attain the recognition from audiences if he/she continues singing with the same tone or singing style. The only way going forward is to get a singing coach and improve his/her vocals. Given that the singing voice is more or less a God-given trait, it is highly likely that it would not be easy for the singer to improve by leaps and bounds.

However, there is a Chinese Saying, “天生我材必有用”. It means that everyone definitely has a skill that would allow him/her to contribute to society. I believe in this. Even if right now, you don’t find yourself being good at anything, don’t worry. Adopt a growth mindset and keep trying new things you might be interested in. Once you have identified a chosen field, you just have to put in more hours of effort than others and seek extra coaching if needed. When the going gets tough, you will have your passion to keep you motivated. One day, with lots of practice and training, you will become good in the area you are passionate about.

As for the story of the singer with terrible voice, it may be true that he/she might never attain immense popularity. Maybe that’s just not his/her calling in life? Perhaps there is something else waiting for him/her to accomplish in the future? Perhaps instead of being a singer, his/her destiny is to be a talented songwriter? As mentioned, keep looking and don’t settle.

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone’ else’s life. Stay hungry. Stay Foolish.”

PRINCIPLE 2: Put a Dent in the Universe

One key reason for the success of Apple was Jobs’ vision which enabled him to gather a team of people behind him and his vision and produce great works.

“A computer for the rest of us.”

A vision is much different from a mission statement. While a mission statement describes what you make, a vision is how you will make the world a better place. Jobs’ bold vision above helped him to inspire others to join him in his cause. It was also a key ingredient in advancing the Apple team to achieve greater heights in innovation.

Today, it may seem obvious that every computer has a mouse and graphical interface for users to navigate. At that time, computers didn’t work that way. While it is all thanks to Apple which kickstarted the revolution of human-computer interaction through a mouse and a GUI, the technology was first developed by Xerox company and not Apple company. The scientists working at Xerox PARC had developed a pointing device called a mouse that could move a cursor around a screen with graphical icons. When Jobs and his team went on a tour around the facility to understand more about the scientists’ work, within an hour of watching demos, they were able to catch something that the Xerox scientists had missed. They realised how they could apply the technology to modern computers and make computers more user friendly. This was largely thanks to Jobs’ vision. Him wanting to put computers in the hand of everyday people made it easy for him and his team to connect the dots and see the implication of the technology. On the other hand, while the scientists were deeply passionate about their work, they were not able to arrive at the same deductions. The absence of a bigger vision led to their failure in getting the first step in dominating the computing industry.

This example goes to show how the power of a vision can help propel the team forward in making advances in innovations. The entire Apple team was aligned to the same vision and felt empowered to make decisions that were of the best interest of the company. Below is one of Jobs’ favourite saying.

“Let’s make a dent in the universe. We’ll make it so important that it will make a dent in the universe.”

An inspiring vision has the following three criteria. It is specific, concise and consistent.

  • Specific: It cannot be ambiguous. When Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz pitched investors on the original concept behind Starbucks, he painted the vision of “a third place between work and home”. The vision was something that is specific, tangible and one can easily visualise it.
  • Concise: Google founders similarly had a very concise, one-statement vision that is “To provide access to the world’s information in one click”.
  • Consistent: A vision is meaningless if it does not have the power to persuade and it cannot persuade if nobody knows about it. The vision has to be consistently delivered across all company channels so that every employee is aware of it and are all on the same page.

When you have a clear vision in mind, you know exactly what your goal is. It is the North Star that you refer to in times of confusion or setbacks. You know that you won’t stop until your vision successfully becomes a reality. Try setting a vision for yourself or your company. Developing a noble purpose will help inject meaning to your life and chances are that it will help to inspire your team.

Passion is the fuel that gives you energy to reach your dreams, but vision provides the roadmap.

PRINCIPLE 3: Kick Start your Brain

What makes innovators different? How can we make our brain more creative and innovative? According to a Harvard research, the number one skill that separates innovators from non creative professionals is “associating”: the ability to successfully connect seemingly unrelated questions, problems, or ideas from different fields. How do you help your brain make connections? The more diverse our experience and knowledge, the more connections the brain can make. Fresh inputs spark new associations and even revolutionary ideas. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better solutions we can come up with.

Most of the innovative products introduced by Apple were the result of Jobs finding inspiration from other industries. For example, when Apple launched the Apple II model, it quickly became the most popular personal computer of the era. In terms of appearances, it was vastly different from the previous model of Apple I. The inspiration for the design of Apple II came from in fact, the cookery industry and not the computing industry. If you take a look at the photos taken from Google Search below, the Cuisinart food processors inspired the design of Apple II: a nice molded plastic case with smooth edges, muted colours, and a lightly textured surface.

Apple I
Apple II and Cuisinart Food Processor

Another innovative product would be the AC adapter that plugs an Apple laptop into a wall socket called MagSafe. It is a magnet that connects the computer to the power cord. This idea was “stolen” from the Japanese rice cookers which is built with magnetic latches to prevent a spill. Though the idea wasn’t novel, it is clear that innovation occurred because Apple made an association that none of its competitors had considered.

“Good artists copy, great artists steal…. Part of what made the Macintosh great was that the people working on it were musicians, and poets, and artists and zoologists, and historians who also happened to be the best computer scientists in the world.”

Creativity boils down to exposing yourself to the great things that other people have done, and then try to apply and bring in the relevant best parts to what you are doing.

Most of the time though, the Eureka moment doesn’t occur in familiar surroundings. It often occurs in the most unexpected locations, miles away from the usual work environment. A case in point would be how a bath led to the Archimedes’ principle.

Therefore, it is important to leave your comfort zone from time to time and simulate your brain with new experiences such as travelling, reading books of a different genre or trying out a different sport. Doing so can help trigger new associations in your brain and advance you in the process of innovating.

PRINCIPLE 4: Sell Dreams, Not Products

When it comes to customers, they are only concern about their own dreams. Can your product or service help them achieve their dreams?

Apple listens to its customers everyday. The company understand the needs of its’ customers so much so that before the customers know of what they need, Apple introduces the solution to them. It does it not by conducting focus groups, where it asks its customers for their wants and feedback, but by understanding their customers’ dreams and tailoring solutions aimed at solving them. There is a quote from Henry ford that goes, “If I’d have asked my customers what they wanted, they would have told me a faster horse”. Most of the time, the most innovative solutions does not come from the customers themselves. The creators have to be the ones extrapolating and figuring out what are the dreams of their target audience and fulfill them. Only by doing so will customer base be expanded and sales soar.

For instance, the invention of the iPhone which removed physical keyboards and is comprised of solely a single flat smooth screen with one button was radical. It vastly improved phone users’ experiences around the world and resulted in a new way of interaction with phones. It would not have been conceived had Apple asked its customers what they wanted. It was only because Apple focused on wanting to achieve the dreams of its’ customer, that is to have a easier experience in using their phones, that it could come up with this innovative design for iPhones.

Similarly, Starbucks is in the business of selling dreams, not coffee. It sells dreams to customers who desire a “third place” between work and home. It sells dreams to employees who crave a workplace that treats them with dignity and respect. It is not in the coffee business, that is what makes it successful. By focusing on making dreams a reality, the company was able to innovate new ideas that helped improve customer experiences and propel the company to success.

The first three principles set the stage for innovation to happen — passion, vision and kick starting the creative process. However, innovation is more than an idea. Innovation occurs when an idea is turned into an actual product, service, company, initiative or action that moves society forward. To turn your ideas into real and successful products, you must get to know your customers. Knowing their dreams and hopes will help you to finetune your idea to gain customer support.

PRINCIPLE 5: Say No to 1000 things

Sometimes, to create innovative products, one have to trim down on the fluff and focus on what is important. Simplicity is key to creating good products. If something does not need to be there, it is eliminated.

For example, the design of Apple products have always been known for their intuitive interface and simple appearance. Jobs’ presentation slides are also known for its’ simple designs. Similarly, when Jobs rejoined Apple, the first steps that he took was to eliminate products that the company was offering. This helped the company to focus on what they did best in.

However, it is important to understand that being minimal is not the same as being simple. The simplest design are minimal, but minimal designs are not always simple. The goal should be to achieve Focus and not minimalism so that it is easy for users to find what they want.

PRINCIPLE 6: Create Insanely Great Experiences

One way to keep your customers hooked with your offering is to be able to engage them and keep them excited.

The book touched on several examples of how company brands made the effort to review each customer touch point with their customers and take opportunities to create a deeper and more lasting relationship with their brand.

When Apple opened its first retail store in 2001, it focused on enabling its’ customers to enter the store to shop for products and leave “feeling” inspired. Instead of the usual computer retail experience whereby products would be packed neatly in boxes, the Apple store allowed customers to test drive products. It enabled customers to walk around the clutter free store and try out the devices which are connected to the Internet. By doing so, customers could try out the products for themselves. Furthermore, there are no standing in long queues at an Apple store to make purchases. Instead, they have specialists who wander the floor with a wireless credit card reader for customers to make easy payment.

I remember in the year 2019 when I was in Beijing, under a school’s overseas exchange program, I made a visit to a Chinese automobile manufacturer company NIO which specialises in developing electric cars. During that company visit, my peers and I were given a tour of the company showroom facility and treated to a talk by one of the staff. It was an eye-opener for me as it was the first time that I realised that apart from focusing on researching and developing the best products, companies have to think of ways to keep their customers engaged in order to keep their brand successful and differentiate from other competitors. I always thought that as long as the products met the needs of the customers, then they have completed their jobs and that’s it. The customers will keep coming as long as the company offer good products. I never thought of the need to make the extra effort to keep customer engaged. It wasn’t a very obvious point to me at that time that these are strategies that can help in customer retention and building brand loyalty.

The extent to which NIO goes to create great experiences for their car buyers is admirable. It doesn’t end after the car keys are handed over to the proud new car owner. But rather, the forming of a new relationship with their customers starts right at that moment. For instance, in the showroom that I went, there was a playground built specifically for children. It was opened to every NIO member who could come in at any time. The intention was to serve as a child care taker center while the parents were free to drop off their children and run their own errands. The company also organises large scale events such as parties or concerts for NIO members to come together and have fun. Apart from this, from time to time, different members from the NIO community could come and conduct sharing talks and anyone is welcome to drop by and benefit from the talks. All of these goes to show how much thinking has been went through behind the scenes by NIO in order to provide the best experience for their clients. The main intention was to create an engaging and vibrant community. By doing so, the brand was able to gain brand loyalty from their customers.

Therefore the key idea is to create experiences to enhance and enrich the connection between the brand and its customers.

PRINCIPLE 7: Master the Message

“You’ve baked a really lovely cake, but you’ve used dog shit for frosting.”

The title of the world’s greatest corporate storyteller goes to Steve Jobs. He never fails to impress the audiences with his presentation to rally everyone together to back his vision and join him in his revolution.

Lets’ face the truth, countless of brilliant ideas will never see the light of day if their stories are not told well. Effective communication is a key ingredient behind the commercialisation of successful innovations. When Jobs had an idea for developing a computer that would replace the command-line interface with icons and a mouse, he had to “sell” the idea to the Apple board. It is evident that the power of persuasion plays an important role here.

Here are some key takeaways in selling your ideas the Jobs way:

  • Twitter friendly headline. When Jobs positioned the iPad in one sentence, he called it a “magical and revolutionary” product. When he introduced the iPod, he described it as having “1000 songs in your pocket”. When asked to describe MacBook Air, he said “It’s the world’s thinnest notebook”. Keeping headlines short and easy to understand is the best way to transmit your message.
  • An Antagonist. IBM was often portrayed as the antagonist in the early speeches of Apple product launches. In many other instances, Jobs will introduce the villain as a problem in need of a solution whereby the Apple product plays the hero. This helps to convince audiences for the need of the product and reason why they ought to have it.
  • The Rule of Three. It has been found that humans can only process three or four chunks of information in short term memory. Therefore, in order to ensure that the points you want to transmit to the audience is being received, keep your pointers to three. In many of Jobs’ presentation, he often kept his contents to be divided into three key points. At the MacWorld 2007, Jobs introduced three revolutionary products: a MP3 player, a phone and an internet communicator. After repeating the three products several times, he finally revealed the iPhone to be the sum of the three.
  • Use Zippy words. Jobs often avoid empty, meaningless words such as best-of-breed, paradigm shift that are vague and non-emotional. Instead, he carefully chooses his words in describing Apple’s products. For example in saying that the buttons on an Apple computer screen looks good, he chose the sentence “You’ll want to lick them.”. Other example of phrases used by him include “It’s a screamer” or “It’s a dream to type on”.
  • Create a “holy smokes” moment. Every jobs presentation has one epic moment that keeps people’s jaws drop. Of course, they are scripted ahead of time. For example, in 2008, Jobs pulled the MacBook Air out of a manila interoffice envelope to demonstrate how thin it was. The photo of this moment became the most popular photo of the event. It is important to think outside of the slides to create these moments. How would you make use of props or existing facilities or items to help aid you?

The End :)

I hope this article has been useful in understanding the Steve Jobs’ way of thinking and his way of innovating.

This is a repository of my thoughts on my personal life, my random interests & notes taken down as I navigate my way through the tech world!