Home Articles Apple an innovation icon? Of course. The ultimate role model? Maybe not

Apple an innovation icon? Of course. The ultimate role model? Maybe not


Are you a big Apple fan? Have you waited with bated breath for its eye-popping products? Did you camp in long lines to buy them? Now, you have read every word on Steve Jobs’ and – as an entrepreneur or otherwise in your career – you simply want to follow in his footsteps?

Hold that thought. And think different, as Apple famously exhorted in a storied ad campaign in the late 1990s.

The consulting firm McKinsey has a timely first warning on the wisdom of blindly following “today’s all-purpose innovation icon.”

Starting in the late 1990s, innovation at Apple has virtually no parallel in recent business history.

Less than a year after the demise of its visionary leader, Apple has also grown into the world’s most valuable company by market capitalisation. It’s no wonder then, that, for many years now, Apple has been held up as the ultimate role model to startups and established companies alike.

And yet, it may not the ultimate role model.

A singular genius

But, what many might want to consider is that Apple’s model may be simply inappropriate to most of us.

“…perils abound when truly exceptional companies morph into ever more ubiquitous examples,” a trio of McKinsey consultants wrote in the firm’s journal, McKinsey Quarterly,  warning against “best-practice traps and management-theory fads.”

“Observers and management theorists alike, blinded by star power, eventually assume that everything these companies do should be regarded as best practice, often without examining the context in which they derive their success or, without parsing the true nature of their accomplishments,” wrote Marla M. Capozzi, Ari Kellen and Sven Smit.

McKinsey’s central point is this: Apple is so unique – even among its technology peers – it is impossible, and, perhaps, foolish to try to emulate it in its entirety.

Just consider the following three points that McKinsey cites to illustrate Apple’s singularity:

  • From 1999 to 2008, Apple was the only global incumbent (of 750 companies on McKinsey’s database) to create new markets, repeatedly, from disruptive innovation.
  • Of the top 10 companies that grew by creating new markets, Apple was the only one to capture this growth through disruptive innovation and, one of only three to derive more than 5 percent of its annual growth by creating new markets. The nine other companies grew by entering, not creating, fast-growing markets.
  • Among tech peers, Apple’s growth through market creation is about six times higher than that of the second- and third-ranked companies – Lenovo and Cisco.

Of course, who is to say nobody can learn from Apple’s success, and emulate some of its feats. Companies should, doubtless, “draw new insights from Apple’s achievements in design, brand loyalty, and retailing, to name a few things,” McKinsey urges.

Think different

In fact, McKinsey specifically suggests what it calls “innovation at scale” – repeatable and sustainable organic growth via new products and services, tapping a company’s core business or competence.

Companies that followed this mantra for significant periods apparently outperformed their peers by two times, as measured by total shareholder returns.

McKinsey’s “cautionary tale” is intended mainly for established companies but, might be no less valuable to a startup.

Apple has been a different company right from its founding in the early 1980s.

Even in its second coming, under the apparently more mature Jobs, it stood apart in how it looked at the market or approached it. It followed no rules, except that of Jobs, and followed no management rules except his. It had a centralised structure, and was near tyrannical in its leadership.

By and large, Apple also cut a lone path in the industry, never building any serious partnerships with other major players except for simple contract manufacturing. It was stingy with stock options, expecting employees would labour for love. It never offered free lunches, in the manner of Google or other tech companies in the Silicon Valley.

Surely, most entrepreneurs aren’t going to want to do all of that. Or, even if you want to, actually be able to pull off anything of the kind. Some of you may not be temperamentally suited to adopt such a style.

But there are many aspects of Apple’s work and approach that startups, as much as anybody else, should emulate.

Design is the obvious one. Apple has radically transformed the way products are designed, and this has set high user expectations. Simplicity and ease-of-use are other ideas with universal appeal.

Still, the ultimate, and enduring, lesson from Apple has got to be: Think different.

It’s what propelled Apple from near death to the pinnacle. It’s what can bring the best out of us.

So, if we want to emulate Apple, let’s just try and think different.