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September 12, 2011 Blog 2 min read

When I think of truly innovative companies, I think Google. Amazon.com. Twitter, Netflix, IBM, Ebay…all of these come to mind. But one company trumps all others: Apple.

It’s often said that necessity is the mother of invention, yet Apple has spent the last couple of decades creating products that most of us never knew we needed, let alone wanted. The iPod, which allows music fans to store thousands upon thousands of songs within one tiny device. iTunes which, at more than 6 million songs, has become the number-one music retailer in the world. The iPhone, with its seemingly limitless number of apps designed to make our lives as easy as we’ll let it. And the iPad, a tablet computer that’s revolutionizing the way we live and work. And that’s just the tip of Apple’s innovative iceberg.

So how do they do it? Well, there’s the leadership of former CEO Steve Jobs, for starters. According to a recent New York Times article, Jobs has said that great products are a triumph of taste, and taste is a byproduct of study, observation, and being steeped in the culture of the past and present, of “trying to expose yourself to the best things humans have done and then bring those things into what you are doing.” In a world where conventional wisdom seems to dictate more is more, Jobs has taken a decidedly less-is-more approach, editing his products in a manner that cuts through complexity by consciously leaving things out. Second, there’s his team, who Jobs has said are 10 times better than “very good” designers, engineers, and managers. Jobs says that his team is the raw material of “aha” products, which “make users rethink their notions of a music player or cellphone.” And then there’s Apple’s keen ability to judge what the public will want and when they’ll want it.

There’s been a lot of talk about the importance of innovation over the past few years, specifically in relation to how important it will be to the success of the Midwest. We can’t all be Apple, but there are plenty of organizations in our region that are innovating successfully. This caused us to wonder, what are they doing that others aren’t? To answer that question, we invited leaders throughout the Midwest to test their IQs (innovation quotients).  Recently, we released a report on the results. They are intriguing, to say the least. For example, the study found that patents aren’t as strong an indicator of success in generating commercially viable new products and services as they’ve been in the past.  More than 60 percent of survey respondents had zero patents, and 17 percent said they don’t even pursue them.

Usually, the word “innovation” conjures up visions of wildly appealing new products and clever technologies, but as Steve Jobs can tell you, innovation can also refer to well-timed business shifts and tracking technology changes over time. It takes a strong leader to drive it and an excellent team to carry it out. It takes communication. But mostly, it takes effort. It’s something organizations create; not a byproduct of their creations.

What do you think makes a company innovative? What do you do at your organization to champion or contribute to innovation?