I’m lucky in that I get to work pretty closely with Apple at the USC Annenberg innovation Lab. So if I have anything to add to the reams of copy written this morning about Steve Jobs’ decision to step down as CEO of Apple it is this: “Culture eats strategy for lunch, everyday.” That’s a saying you hear around Apple a lot and it is one that needs to be understood in the halls of Congress, in other executive suites and in the society in general. Apple is the most innovative organization in the world, not because it has a strategy of innovation, but because it has a culture of innovation.
From my vantage point that culture has two elements: reward risk and marry science to art. In the long succession of hit products in the last decade, it’s hard to remember that Steve Jobs had some epic failures early in his career. Anyone remember the Lisa or the Newton? Both were total flops, but the Lisa morphed into the Mac and one could argue that the dream of the Newton ultimately was realized in the I Pad. So the culture rewards both risk, failure and the lessons learned from both. And then there is the marriage of science and art, at which Steve Jobs and his team excelled beyond his competitors. There is a bad tendency in this country to think our “innovation deficit” lies in what policy makers call STEM (science,technology, engineering and math). But Jobs understands that the magic formula is STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math). It is the basis of what we teach at The innovation Lab and it is the core of the Apple brand. Steve’s obsessive belief in the role of the artist goes way beyond his early fascination with typography. What makes each of his products so thrilling is that they are aesthetically pleasing just to look at, never mind how cool they are to operate.
So here are my take aways from Steve’s departure. We better start building a culture of innovation all over this country. That means we have to let lots of experiments happen at the state and city level in order to start putting people back to work. Some of them will fail, but hopefully we will all find the best practices quickly. In congress, they better stop thinking about strategy every morning and start thinking about culture. And in our schools we better keep teaching the arts and not just concentrate on math and science. As to the continuing success of Apple, I have no doubt. Because innovation was never a top down strategy, but rather a bottom-up culture, Apple will thrive. Steve’s vision will be missed, but he embedded the culture throughout the organization.