Apple’s Innovation Method ? – Part 2 – SIP


Please read Part 1 of this series, to understand the context better.

Reading the Tea Leaves

Once the iPod became successful, stories of how it got made were written up and one of the stories which covered – how the iPod came to be that small caught my attention. In that story, the following lines were telling:

The engineers explained that they had to reinvent inventing to create the iPod, and that it was simply impossible to make it any smaller. Jobs was quiet for a moment. Finally he stood, walked over to an aquarium, and dropped the iPod in the tank. After it touched bottom, bubbles floated to the top.
“Those are air bubbles,” he snapped. “That means there’s space in there. Make it smaller.”
The other thing that most of us can’t help but notice is the frequent claim that Steve Jobs made about not asking your customers what they wanted. This proved to be a very hard point to fully understand. If you are from the Services industry like me, not asking the customers is blasphemy. So why exactly is Steve Jobs making this statement?
In my research, I turned up a very old interview that the Inc. magazine did in 1989 with Steve Jobs. In that I found the answer I was looking for:

INC.: Where do great products come from?

JOBS: I think really great products come from melding two points of view—the technology point of view and the customer point of view. You need both. You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new. It took us three years to build the NeXT computer. If we’d given customers what they said they wanted, we’d have built a computer they’d have been happy with a year after we spoke to them—not something they’d want now.

INC.: You mean the technology is changing too fast.

JOBS: Yeah, and customers can’t anticipate what the technology can do. They won’t ask for things that they think are impossible. But the technology may be ahead of them. If you happen to mention something, they’ll say, “Of course, I’ll take that. Do you mean I can have that, too?” It sounds logical to ask customers what they want and then give it to them. But they rarely wind up getting what they really want that way.

Seemingly Impossible Problem (SIP) 

I have made the keywords that really struck me into Red & Bold. I put two & two together and realized that Apple’s strategy is to find a Seemingly Impossible Problem (SIP) in a given space and solve it. Now as I ran through Apple’s recent products one by one, it fit the pattern –  iPod solved the Seemingly Impossible Problem of having 1000 songs in your pocket, the iPhone solved the Seemingly Impossible Problem of having a Smartphone with no buttons…

Not just Apple’s successful products, failed products like Apple Cube solved a SIP.  I found that certain features in Apple’s products are SIPs. For example, if you own a Macbook Pro, you will be surprised to know that the Green light that shows up when you turn on the camera, is done without any holes at all! [Please read this write up in the Businessweek on that SIP ]. The picture below of my Macbook Pro shows the front face without any visible hole for the green light to shine through.

macbookpro camera laser 1

The picture below of my Macbook Pro shows the Green Light which is coming without any visible hole on the Laptop’s front face!

macbook pro camera laser 2

The fingerprint sensor that works like magic on the iPhone 5S is an SIP – those that have used the pathetic fingerprint scanners on laptops can attest to the iPhone 5S’ innovation :)

Laws of Subtraction

As I was researching SIPs further, by some sheer coincidence, a colleague of mine Sanjay Radhakrishnan handed me Mathew May’s brilliant book The Laws of Subtraction.  In that book, May gives several examples of SIPs in the chapter Laws of Subtraction No. 4 – Creativity Thrives Under Intelligent Constraints:

Brian Muirhead, Mars Pathfinder Team Leader was asked to build with $150MM in 3 years, when the previous mission Mars Observer took 10 years & $1B to do it. ….. It was and remains one of the most compelling examples of how to use seemingly impossible constraints to tap into and guide human creativity in a team setting.  

Lexus Chief Engineer Ichiro Suzuki, issued the Challenge of producing a luxury performance sedan that would beat the best         luxury sedans – BMW 735i and Mercedes 420SEL – across the board in comfort, styling, performance, handling, cabin noise, aerodynamics, weight, and fuel sufficiency.  …….. The reaction from the 1,400 engineers involved was unanimous :impossible.

More SIPs

Obviously, choosing an SIP strategy is audacious and many firms and teams won’t even try. But that is a topic for some other time. Sticking with SIPs,  over time, I found several more examples – Boeing 727, GMail and examples from India – TATA Nano, Titan Edge. You can also see the SIP signature in Google’s attempts – Driverless Cars, non-invasive Glucometry using a smart Contact Lens etc.

I was pleasantly surprised to see Google hiring Regina Dugan (ex DARPA) to head their skunkworks labs. And here is what she says in an interview:

In June at Google I/O, the company’s developer conference in San Francisco, for example, she filled her presentation on her Motorola work with catchy—and sometimes trite—one-liners that mixed showmanship and bravado. “Here we don’t tinker,” she said. “We build new things, sometimes seemingly impossible things.” 


Now a string of success stories, does not a theory make. When does the SIP strategy not work? Closer to home the TATA Nano, while an SIP, did not achieve the success it was expected to attain, the Apple Cube was a big flop. Why does that happen?  Understanding this is crucial to applying the SIP strategy. Will cover it in the next post. Stay tuned.


FTOTW125 – best links of the week ending 31-August-2014


Here are the best links shared on my tweet stream this week.

Best Links

  1. RT @edyong209: One species becomes two, INSIDE an insect! My new post on an incredible evolutionary story ~ Amazing – Original Tweet

  2. What happened to Motorola? ~ vv interesting /Via @diggOriginal Tweet

  3. RT @schakrabarti1: The Art of Strategic Laziness ~ vv insightful – Original Tweet

  4. /Via @kalsekhar @sandy_kaul How men & women see colours? – science behind it ~ vv insightful – Original Tweet


Hope you enjoyed the links? Did you come across any good links you want to share? Please share in the comments below.


I use a certain ratings scale for my annotations which are explained here.

FTOTW124 – best links of the week ending 24-August-2014


Here are the best links shared on my tweet stream this week.

Best Links

  1. /Via @svganny @stwta: Jerry Seinfeld about Helmet ~ brilliant ROTFL – Original Tweet

  2. /Via @ramaseshan: Carrot clarinet: Linsey Pollak at TEDxSydney 2014: via @YouTube via Balaji ~ brilliant ~ indeed – Original Tweet

  3. RT @jorgebarba How A World-Class Heart Surgeon Found The One Leadership Trait Many Businesses Are Missing ~ brilliant – Original Tweet

  4. /Via @rucsb: Science points to the single most valuable personality trait for Future Success; but then.. ~ brilliant – Original Tweet

  5. Backstory on Chennai road names for Chennai buffs by @weareji ~ vv interesting #Chennai375 – Original Tweet

  6. /Via @BrainfitWorld Bursting the bubble on some of our most popular fitness myths… ~ vv insightful – Original Tweet


Hope you enjoyed the links? Did you come across any good links you want to share? Please share in the comments below.


I use a certain ratings scale for my annotations which are explained here.

FTOTW123 – best links of the week ending 17-August-2014


Here are the best links shared on my tweet stream this week.

Best Links

  1. /Via @KrishG surprising truth about increasing your IQ/Cognitive abilities by Andrea Kuszewski ~ ****ing brilliant – Original Tweet

  2. /Via @brainpicker if you win the rat race you are still a rat – Anna Quindlen’s commencement address ~ brilliant – Original Tweet

  3. RT @paulg: How to Be Polite: ~ brilliant – Original Tweet

  4. /Via @krishnarc: How to Learn Anything Better By Tweaking Your Mindset: ~ vv interesting – Original Tweet

  5. This article appeared Machine beats medics at predicting heart attacks ~ vv interesting /Via @sameermehta-email Tweet

  6. Don’t think you’re a genius just because you succeeded ~ vv insightful /Via @SmartBriefOriginal Tweet


Hope you enjoyed the links? Did you come across any good links you want to share? Please share in the comments below.


I use a certain ratings scale for my annotations which are explained here.

Apple’s Innovation Method? – Part 1


As promised in my last post on Christensen’s Theory of Disruption, I want to share my findings on Apple’s Innovation Method (AIM). How does the planet’s most watched company come up with its string of ground breaking innovations?  Lots of books and articles have been written about Apple and its methods and I have read quite a few of them myself. Given how secretive the company is, we will likely never know what its methods truly are?  BTW, i have no connections to any one in Apple, nor do I have access to any internal Apple documents, unless they are in the public domain. Many of you that have worked with me will recognize many of the points that I will be mentioning.

Holy Grail of Innovation Management

Before I talk about Apple’s methods, I want to set the context. I am very lucky to have had the good fortune of running the Innovation program for a Fortune 500 firm for 5 years . As you can imagine, my job demanded that I look  at the top innovators in the world, which obviously includes Apple. I have also read scores of books on the topic of Breakthrough Innovation. One important & obvious inference is this -  Systematizing Breakthrough Innovation, is the Holy Grail in the field of Innovation Management.  If we could Systematize Breakthrough Innovation, sky is the limit, isn’t it? Obviously this inference triggered my passion to soak up a lot of material on the topic of Breakthrough Innovation.

Before I start, it may be useful to define Breakthrough Innovation and I will use my favorite innovation chart – the NASSCOM-BCG Innovation Matrix:

nasscom-bcg innovation matrix

Let me the explain the chart. On the X Axis – Area of Innovation – Any organization can be thought of, simplistically, to consist of 3 major functions – Input, Process & Output. Input – is the raw material, Process is the company’s process, Output is the product(s)/services the company sells in the market.  For example,  an IT/ITeS services firm, like the one I was working for, the Input is – people  & technology, Process is the company’s proprietary processes, and Output is the IT/ITeS services sold in the market.  On the Y Axis, the Extent of Innovation – Sustaining, Enhancing & Breakthrough – the 3 kinds of Innovations a firm could do. I think the words Sustaining, Enhancing & Breakthrough are self-explanatory. I have marked the Breakthrough Tier in Green.

Another interesting observation I made is this – most books on Breakthrough Innovation focus themselves entirely on Breakthrough Innovations in the Output category –  just 1 out of  the 3 potential areas for Breakthrough Innovation.

Why is Breakthrough Innovation so hard?

Some interesting factoids – IBM’s survey of Top CEOs says Creativity is the most important trait. Everyone talks incessantly about Breakthrough Innovation, The Global 1000 has spent over 2 Trillion $ in R&D in the last 5 years. But Apple is one of the lowest R&D spenders in the Global 1000 and Apple’s R&D spend is decreasing !

Looking back in History is one of my favorite methods of analysis. I looked at the history of Breakthrough Innovations and I realized how hard it is even for the reigning experts in the field to recognize and encourage Breakthrough Innovations:


“The cinema is little more than a fad. It’s canned drama. What audiences really want to see is flesh and blood on the stage.” -– Charlie Chaplin,1916  

“The Americans have need of the telephone, but we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys.” — Sir William Preece, Chief Engineer, British Post Office, 1878.

“This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.” — A memo at Western Union, 1878 (or 1876).

“[Television] won’t be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.” — Darryl Zanuck, movie producer, 20th Century Fox, 1946.

“When the Paris Exhibition [of 1878] closes, electric light will close with it and no more will be heard of it.” – Oxford professor Erasmus Wilson

Above Quotes source: Listverse

“A rocket will never be able to leave the Earth’s atmosphere.” — New York Times, 1936.

“Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.” — Lord Kelvin, British mathematician and physicist, president of the British Royal Society, 1895. “

There is not the slightest indication that nuclear energy will ever be obtainable. It would mean that the atom would have to be shattered at will.” — Albert Einstein, 1932

“Rail travel at high speed is not possible because passengers, unable to breathe, would die of asphyxia.” — Dr Dionysys Larder (1793-1859), professor of Natural Philosophy and Astronomy, University College London.

“Fooling around with alternating current is just a waste of time. Nobody will use it, ever.” — Thomas Edison, American inventor, 1889

          Source: Physics of the Impossible by Michio Kaku

If this is so hard for the reigning experts of the field, then how can the typical executive in a firm, recognize and encourage Breakthrough Innovations?

Neuroscience of Breakthrough Innovation

I decided to look at Neuroscience to understand why Breakthrough Innovation causes such reactions from people. A 2010 paper from a Cornell study titled “The Bias Against Creativity: Why People Desire But Reject Creative Ideas”  provided a brilliant answer:

Because we are motivated to reduce uncertainty in our operations, and the fact that Innovation creates uncertainty, we are subconsciously averse to Innovation, even though we may desire Innovation.


Now that I have set the stage, I want to cover the Apple Innovation Method, more directly :)