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Lessons Learned

Three Lessons On Innovation I Learned During My 12 Years At Apple

As one veteran of Apple's early forays into digital music explains, nothing slows things down like seeking consensus.

[Photo: Flickr user Guillermo]

Before Apple Music, before the iPad, even before the mp3, I had a front-row seat and backstage access to the digital music revolution.

During my 12-year tenure at Apple, from the late ’80s and to the early 2000s, I helped lead the team that launched some of Apple's earliest innovations in music and entertainment. We developed the strategies, marketing initiatives, and relationships with content creators and media companies—across music, film, and TV—that laid the foundations that iTunes and subsequent innovations were later build upon.

Since then, my friend and colleague Dave Ulmer has literally written the book (or one of them, anyway) on innovation and corporate culture. Drawing on his work in The Innovator’s Extinction, here are three key lessons that characterize my experience at Apple and strike me as more relevant than ever today.

1. Consensus Is Not Your Friend

Nothing slows work down like waiting for everyone to agree. I was fortunate in the wide latitude I had at Apple; the way I managed relationships with major artists and bigwigs inside the company was entirely at my discretion. My superiors didn’t have the experience, context, or insight to navigate those often larger-than-life personalities—and they were comfortable with that.

When I had to negotiate with Fred Astaire’s widow, Robyn Smith, for the rights to use his image in a campaign, for instance, there were a few tricky moments. But because I was used to dealing with celebrity demands and knew how to work with them, we handled the concerns and negotiated a successful outcome without fanfare. Apple's management trusted me to drive these efforts in a way that would leave everyone happy.

Companies first need to offer their team leaders this high degree of independence in order to innovate. Then, once you've been given the budget and authority, you need to take advantage of both. Don’t stop to build consensus on method. It's about mutual respect for expertise; if you’re working with other innovators, don’t expect them to stop to build consensus, either. No talented creative artists I know ever ask for permission; they just create.

2. Don't Run Back And Forth Seeking Interim Feedback

You don’t need approval to experiment and put innovative ideas into action—or you shouldn't, anyway. Companies that require interim approval and constant progress reports hamper innovation. Real breakthroughs can’t happen if you’re constantly stopping to present your work midway through, second-guessing yourself all the time.

That doesn't mean a completely hands-off approach, of course, but it does require a culture where innovators are trusted to see their own work through. Chances are that will demand plenty of collaboration anyway—all without round after round of rubber-stamping. When working on complex cross-functional marketing campaigns at Apple, I took it upon myself to consult with colleagues across the company, but only to let them provide feedback on materials particularly relevant to their own expertise.

At the time, this type of cross-divisional collaboration wasn't common practice at Apple—silos were more the norm—so my colleagues were thrilled just to have a voice and a vote. These efforts not only strengthened the campaigns, they also allowed me to forge deeper, long-term relationships with those colleagues.

For instance, when we created a campaign aimed at the music, film, and TV industries, I took draft versions of our in-progress materials over the marketing and engineering teams. They were glad to be looped in and have a stake in the messaging and positioning of the product. I didn’t seek approval from management beforehand, though; I took the initiative and used my own judgment, which was ultimately appreciated by all.

3. Be Wary Of Received Wisdom

Kodak's story is by now well known: Once the leader in camera technology, for a time it accounted for 90% of film and 85% of camera sales in America. It even invented the digital camera. But, unwilling to shift its internal status quo, Kodak soon found itself on the outskirts of the market it helped to create.

When it comes to innovation, that phenomenon is all too common. If your team is unwilling to question received wisdom, it’s your job to push them to do it. Oddly enough, convincing the powers that be at Apple that music and entertainment were key markets was actually a real challenge for me. Then Steve Jobs returned to the company and launched the iPod and iTunes, both of which leveraged the foundation, legacy, and relationships we'd created, often hand over fist, in previous years.

Fighting the status quo can be tricky in a corporate setting. If you find yourself pushing innovation to a reluctant team, try some of these strategies:

  • Create a risk profile for your current strategy the way you would for a new opportunity. Looking at the trends you already know about—and considering you'll inevitably face some that you so far don't—how does maintaining the status quo increase your risk?
  • Show how the steps you recommend can lead to an increased return on investment, keeping in mind that you'll need to define ROI in a way that resonates with upper management.
  • Shine the spotlight on indecision and help teammates get more comfortable taking action with incomplete information. Ask, "How much do we really need to know before making a decision?"
  • Diplomatically resolve turf wars that hold the company back. When new products risk cannibalizing old businesses, emotions unavoidably get heated. Still, it’s better for an internal department to innovate than for an external competitor to gain an advantage.

Companies can’t afford to stay stagnant, and that means getting better at recognizing and practicing innovation. We won’t drive the next revolution without it.

Kelli Richards is the CEO of The All Access Group. She facilitates strategic business opportunities in digital distribution among innovative technology companies, talent and media companies, and brands. She is also the author of a best-selling e-book The Magic and Moxie of Apple: An Insider’s View.

Related: The History of Apple in Under 3 Minutes