GUEST AUTHOR BLOG: "Simplicity is the Mother of Invention" by Ken Segall author of "Insanely Simple: The Obsession That Drives Apple’s Success."
There are many ways to describe Apple . “Innovation machine” is a personal favorite. I can’t think of any company that has introduced as many consecutive revolutions in the consumer market as Apple has.
Analysts, customers, competitors and students of business would love to know what drives this machine. What is it about Apple that has enabled them to churn out one hit after the next? Is there some fundamental difference between the way Apple works and the way other companies work?
I believe there’s a very simple answer—and that is simplicity itself. Apple has a deep and enduring belief in the power of simplicity, thanks to Steve Jobs.
You can see this belief in every Apple product. As an old iMac headline once put it, Apple builds things that are “simply amazing and amazingly simple.” This guiding philosophy isn’t exactly new for the company. It’s been present since ancient times, when the Apple II desktop created the first computer revolution. In fact, an early ad for the Apple II read “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
But Steve Jobs’ biggest accomplishment wasn’t that he built simplicity into his products. It’s that he built it into his company.
The fact that iPhones and iPads even exist is proof that he succeeded. Because a simple idea can’t end up as a simple product if it has to go through a complicated process. Steve was passionate about keeping Apple’s internal structure simple, and ruthless in stamping out complexity before it could gain a foothold.
This deep belief in simplicity is Apple’s point of difference. Without simplicity guiding every part of the company, Apple would not be able to innovate at the level it has—nor would it have achieved such astronomical success.
To help prove this point, I call myself to the witness stand. I had the good fortune to work with Steve Jobs as his agency creative director for over 12 years, starting at NeXT and continuing through his return to Apple in 1997. I also spent many years performing the same role in service of Intel and Dell .
Though my experience was limited to the marketing side, the difference in cultures was plain to see: Apple keeps things simple. The other guys let things get complicated.
"As companies get bigger, they tend to become victims of their own processes."
Steve proudly said that there were zero committees inside Apple, and that Apple worked like “the world’s biggest startup.” Many times, I saw him have an allergic reaction to any behavior that reeked of big-company behavior. He’d shut down a presentation if it felt too formal. He’d throw someone out of a meeting just to keep it small. His favorite graphic was the kind you’d scribble on a whiteboard. Simple.
Intel and Dell, on the other hand, were big companies that acted like big companies. In my experience with them, I don’t think I ever saw an idea travel in a straight path. Instead, ideas would bounce from one approver to the next, from one focus group to the next, across the country and around the world, being “refined” every step of the way. Complicated.
Apple doesn’t tolerate this behavior.
Focus groups, of course, are a favorite tool of big companies. One which Steve Jobs reviled. He had no interest in seeking out product ideas from his customers, nor did he care to hear if anyone liked his ads before he ran them.
This is really just a matter of confidence. At Apple, a small number of smart people would sit at a table, review a number of advertising ideas and pick one. Then it would be produced. They trusted their own talent to make the right pick. At Intel, a small number of smart people would also review the ideas, but they needed to pick two. Then they’d invest time and money to let focus groups determine the best. The only problem with this approach—it didn’t work. Apple’s work is 100% focus-group free, and consistently superior. So simplicity not only achieves better results, it’s more efficient as well.
It’s not that other companies are evil. I believe those companies have just lost sight of the simplicity that was surely present in their earlier days—when they had more in common with the Apple of today.
The problem is, as companies get bigger, they tend to become victims of their own processes. Most processes were put in place with the best of intentions, to help companies “institutionalize” success. And in many companies, processes may well catapult them to ever-higher gains. But in industries where creativity is a differentiator, processes can easily dilute great ideas. Without an advocate for simplicity in the CEO’s office, processes can even become more important than the ideas that flow through them. At Apple, ideas travel a more direct path from start to finish. There are fewer approvers on that path, and great ideas are nurtured rather than homogenized.
In an internal meeting of Intel’s global marketing teams I attended years ago, CEO Paul Ottelini stood up to inspire his troops. He explained that in the world of microprocessors, Intel must make zero-defect products. He thought it would be appropriate to give his marketers the same mission: he demanded that they create zero-defect advertising. That, of course, sent shudders down the spines of all who were familiar with the creative process, which is inherently risky. Even worse, it inspired all the managers in the room to clamp down on their processes to ensure that all marketing ideas were properly sanitized before seeing the light of day. Testing and analysis at Intel got a big boost that day—while they remained totally absent at Apple.
Steve Jobs laid out goals, then made sure that processes never got in the way. When he returned to Apple in 1997 there was a process underway to choose a new ad agency. It would have taken months. Steve killed that process and had an agency at work in just a couple of weeks. He wanted to create a brand campaign to show the world that Apple was alive and well, with spirit intact, so we created the “Think different” campaign—also in a matter of weeks.
Years later, I found myself part of a group tasked with the same mission for Dell. Unlike Apple’s effort, in which Steve had been a participant, this one was managed by a committee—without any involvement from the CEO. It went just as one could have predicted. It sputtered for a few months, then mercifully died with nothing to show for it.
What’s interesting is that inside both Intel and Dell, the example set by Apple is brought up constantly, meeting after meeting. There is an unmistakeable eagerness to duplicate Apple’s results, but a distinct inability to duplicate its methods.
At Apple, simplicity truly is the mother of invention. The company’s revolutionary products would not exist if Steve Jobs hadn’t created an organization in which simplicity always wins.
Though every Apple revolution has been different, each has demonstrated the same business principle: the best way to reach a higher goal is to follow a simpler path.
Ken Segall is the author of Insanely Simple: The Obsession That Drives Apple’s Success. He regularly blogs about technology and marketing at http://kensegall.com/blog.