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Today’s Note: Google, Apple, Innovation and Jazz?

January 29, 2012
yin and yang of innovation

Today’s Note features an interesting analysis of innovation in the technology industry, contrasting the organizational cultures of Apple and Google. It also uses jazz music as a metaphor for the creative process, compliments of jazz pianist and innovation speaker John Kao. The article, “The Yin and the Yang of Corporate Innovation” by Steve Lohr of the New York Times, is a very pleasant and though-provoking read.

Lohr’s opening sets the stage for his topic nicely:

IN the hunt for innovation, that elusive path to economic growth and corporate prosperity, try a little jazz as an inspirational metaphor.

That’s the message that John Kao, an innovation adviser to corporations and governments — who is also a jazz pianist — was to deliver in a performance and talk on Saturday at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Jazz, Mr. Kao says, demonstrates some of the tensions in innovation, between training and discipline on one side and improvised creativity on the other.

[italics in this post denote quotations from the article and are, in all cases, added by me]

Lohr describes and amplifies on Kao’s idea clearly, by discussing some of the key aspects of innovation at the two technology giants, Apple and Google. He explains that Google emphasizes a trial-and-error approach, collecting lots of data from each attempt, and gradually winnowing out the ideas that don’t gain traction. This iterative experimentation generates lots of failed projects, but lots of blockbusters, too. In contrast, Apple doesn’t like to have failed projects. Instead, its attention to detail and quality is superlative, and once it commits to a project, it invests itself fully in it. Lohr elaborates on Apple’s model, explaining the differences this way: “Apple’s physical world is far different from Google’s realm of Internet software, where writing a few lines of new code can change a product instantly. The careful melding of hardware with software in Apple’s popular products is a challenge in multidisciplinary systems design that must be orchestrated by a guiding hand.

At the same time, innovation itself has a serendipitous element, a spark. Lohr discusses that by telling us

Yet while networked communications and marketplace experiments add useful information, breakthrough ideas still come from individuals, not committees. “There is nothing democratic about innovation,” says Paul Saffo, a veteran technology forecaster in Silicon Valley. “It is always an elite activity, whether by a recognized or unrecognized elite.”

Lohr also adds some valuable discussion of current innovation occurring at General Electric, and I found that part of his article very interesting: “A century later, the corporate labs at G.E. are trying to quicken the pace of innovation — but this is long-cycle innovation, since G.E.’s power generators, jet engines and medical-imaging equipment last for decades. The company is opening a software center in Northern California to make its machines more intelligent with data-gathering sensors, wireless communications and predictive algorithms. The goal is to develop machines, such as jet engines or power turbines, that can alert their human minders when they need repairs, before equipment failures occur. Such smarter machines, the company says, are early arrivals in what it calls the Industrial Internet.

Lohr closes up by speculating on how different innovation models might influence one another, noting that “Apple and Google pursue very different paths to innovation, but the gap between their two models may be closing a bit. In the months after Larry Page, the Google co-founder, took over as chief executive last April, the company eliminated a diverse collection of more than two dozen projects, a nudge toward top-down leadership. And Timothy D. Cook, Apple’s C.E.O., will almost surely be a more bottom-up leader than Mr. Jobs.

This is an interesting article, well researched and written. Whether your interest is business, technology, electronics, innovation or just current events, you fill find reading it to be worth your time.

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One Comment
  1. “Jazz, Mr. Kao says, demonstrates some of the tensions in innovation, between training and discipline on one side and improvised creativity on the other.”

    Successful companies need a little of both!

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