63. The Macro- and Micro- of Innovation
You may be waiting for the world to change. Turns out, that’s not how it works.
June is WWDC time of year.
If you don’t know what the WWDC is, you are neither an Apple geek nor a developer. As for me, I am an Apple geek who wishes he were a developer.
The WWDC is Apple’s yearly Worldwide Developer Conference. Yes it should be WDC, not WWDC. That annoys me too. Personally I think they should’ve numbered them: WD-1, WD-2, etc. just so they could eventually get to WD-40. I contacted Apple a time or two to let them have my idea because I knew they’d be grateful. Steve Jobs, however, never returned my calls. Unless you call a restraining order a returned call. I don’t.
But I digress.
The WWDC is the event in which Apple announces all the cool new products and enhancements they are releasing.
Apple is extremely secretive about their product development, so unless you share some late night pillow talk with a high level Apple employee, you will probably remain fairly clueless about their product details until the WWDC.
They’ve been holding the conference since 1987 (2021 would be WD-44) and it’s become a big event for media and developers. Like $1600 a ticket “big”. Plus it’s limited to only 6,000 attendees. They’ve successfully turned a product release announcement into a velvet rope event. With A-list bands playing and a week long of keynote talks, breakout sessions and schmoozing, Apple has done with the WWDC what American Express has done with the Black Card: not everybody is invited to participate, but lots of people sure wish they were.
Just about every national media outlet pays attention to the WWDC, from your CNET tech reviewers to your Wall Street Journalers, and everything in-between. Believe the hype or not, but Apple’s product announcements have become major worldwide news. I can’t think of another company, short of maybe auto manufacturers, that have built so much hype around a pre-scheduled announcement event, without even being clear of what is being announced.
Its a pretty darn impressive way to roll out new products every year
Google, of course, doesn’t quite agree with Apple’s tactic.
Back in 2004, Google popularized the concept of 20% time. The basic idea is that in any given week, employees could spend 20% of their work time creating new ideas. In other words, one day of each week employees were empowered to be innovative in anyway they thought could benefit Google.
There used to be a website called Google Labs where some of the developing ideas were made available for anybody and everybody to try out (especially the wanna-be-firsts, like me). Even when the ideas were just in beta, the entire world could test them out. It was pretty darn cool, if I say so myself. And I just did say so myself.
More than a few of these 20% time concepts became official product releases, including Google News and, yes, Gmail.
Now that Google is a massive ~$200 billion company, it’s become harder for them to manage the 20% time initiative (employees apparently began calling it “120% time”). However, the essence of building innovative products to benefit Google is still part of the culture - and the transparency around these products is part of the roll-out.
Google needs no annual date to launch a new idea - and people know that getting a job at Google means getting to innovate.
Keeping the Large Ship Turning
Apple and Google are two of the largest companies in the world, yet remain amongst the most innovative of any organization anywhere. This idea is kinda wacko because, historically, the larger the ship the more challenging it is to turn - just ask Captain Edward J Smith.
Despite their sizes, both Apple and Google have managed to harness creativity and productivity at immense scale, and translate that creativity into highly innovative technologies that continue to have major impacts on our culture.
Though the approach for each is different, both companies have embodied the vital importance of innovation.
Innovation Is In The Details
Continued innovation, at any scale, can be challenging.
First, you need an innovative idea that can be put into action. Then you need to put it into action. Then you need people to alter their behavior in such a way as to utilize the idea.
Then you need to figure out how to do that again… and again… and again.
Keep in mind, though, that the concept of innovation falls on a spectrum. At one end, which I’ll call macro-innovation, it’s about creating products that meaningfully change human behavior. This includes everything from early man’s discovery of how to create fire, to the creation of the Internet.
One of the best examples of a macro-innovator is Elon Musk. Elon doesn’t take small steps - he’s a macro kind of guy. First he innovated payment processing with the co-creation of PayPal. As if that wasn’t enough for one life, he then innovated automobiles and batteries with Tesla and, as a side hobby, innovated space travel with Space X. He is to technology what Michelangelo was to art - a once-in-a-generation serial macro-innovator
At the opposite end of the spectrum is what I will call micro-innovations, because I can’t think of a better name. These micro-innovations may not meaningfully change human behavior but, rather, they take existing processes and present them in a better way. Innovation, in this sense, is in the details. Think of this as the difference between black and white TV and color. Same behavior, different experience.
Another great example is the evolution of the remote control. Back in 2011 Netflix had the great idea to partner with electronics companies and put a Netflix button on universal remote controls (including Roku). A simple move and an amazing micro-innovation. Fast forward 10 years and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a remote that doesn’t have a few branded buttons on it.
They haven’t reinvented the remote control or the tv viewing experience with this button. They’ve simply removed three or four clicks from an existing process and, in that sense, created an innovative experience.
True innovation, as I have said, is sometimes in the details - as minor as a new button.
Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft, has said “Longevity… is about being able to reinvent yourself or invent the future.”
Without innovation, a company will eventually fade away (coughRadioShackcough). It doesn’t matter how big or popular an organization is, the hubris of status quo is the knell of their downfall (didsomeonesaySears?).
Your company’s longevity and relevance is directly attributable to your relationship with innovation.
But you don’t have to change the world to innovate. Innovation, as I said, can be in the details.
There’s a bookstore I frequent that’s down the street from me (yes, I still love a good bookstore). Why do I go there? They are innovative in an analog type of way.
When you walk into the store they have an entire wall that displays books that the staff loves. The recommendations aren’t just new releases - it’s any book each staff member wants to feature with a short description of why they love it. I have the same taste as a few staff members. If they recommend something, I buy it and odds are I’m going to really like it.
Even a bookstore, in this day of Amazon-ness, has innovated the buying process by creating the personalization that just can’t be done as effectively at mass scale.
Look In The Mirror of Innovation
I wrote a piece last week about the expected increase in innovation that will follow the coronavirus pandemic. What I failed to mention is the important role you play - yes you - in creating these innovative ideas, regardless of your job, regardless of your company.
You don’t need to have a recurring red carpet roll-out like Apple. You don’t need to build an entire platform to showcase ideas, like Google. Remember what I said earlier in this diatribe, the secret to innovation is not that secret:
1. Come up with an idea that can make something better
2. Do it.
Innovation could be a better decision-making process. It could be a way to be more productive in meetings. Innovation could be improving your daily prioritization process. Or maybe it’s simply buying an automatic pet feeder so the cat doesn’t wake you up so early in the morning while your wife sleeps soundly and instead you can get an extra couple hours of rest that you really need in order to stay creative and productive for your work day (just a random hypothetical, of course.)
In the immortal words of Thomas Edison, “There’s a way to do it better - find it.”
And with that, I’ll shut up. I’ve got to go micro-innovate our sales process.