Steve Jobs is Dead – Whither innovation at Apple?

Steve Jobs lost his battle against pancreatic cancer. Surely this is a huge loss for his family and friends, for the fans and employees of Apple, and for the business world as a whole because he was one of its most prominent icons. To all of you, I’m sorry for your loss.

But is it the end of innovation at Apple?

Is Apple incapable of innovating without Steve Jobs?

Can you have sustainable innovation without a CEO who sees himself as the Chief Innovation Officer?

Is innovation the purview of the lone inventor, or does it take a village to innovate?

For those of you who know me, or have heard me speak or read my book Stoking Your Innovation Bonfire or my other writings here on the site, you can probably guess which side of the fence I stand on.

Personally, I don’t buy the lone innovator myth and instead think my Nine Innovation Roles is a better way to look at things. Look at the labs of Alexander Graham Bell or Thomas Edison decades ago, or the impact of private and hookah clubs or coffee shops and universities throughout time. Instead I think that organizations need to be looking at the innovation that has come from the interconnectedness of our economies and make sure that their organizations are as interconnected as they need to be to maximize their own innovation capacity. Has your organization built a global sensing network? Should it?

If you were to ask me to describe Steve Jobs from the outside in, I would describe him as a great entrepreneur, not a great innovator. There is a subtle distinction there. Innovators create value, entrepreneurs help people access and translate that value into their life. Entrepreneurs are also really good at helping innovators commercialize things and turn inventions into innovations. Steve Jobs was really good at driving his deep team of talented innovators towards innovative solutions. He was a great innovation leader, but not necessarily a great innovator. In that way it seems like he might have been very much like Thomas Edison, which if he is to be remembered in a comparative sense, is not a bad way at all to be remembered.

Here is a rare Steve Jobs narrated version of the iconic Think Different ad done as a tribute by jeremytai:

Again from the outside looking in, Apple started as a very entrepreneurial company when it was led by an entrepreneur, but lost its way when Steve Jobs was forced out by the executive mindset, only to buy NeXT to get a modern OS to rescue the company (and get Steve Jobs back in the bargain – but also its entrepreneurial mindset). Every organization must continuously look to balance the tension between the entrepreneurial mindset and the executive mindset. Which begs the question:

Should an organization be led by an executive or an entrepreneur?

I have two more final points I want to examine before I go to bed. The first is that I found myself thinking while I was sitting there eating dinner in a coffee shop in New York City when I heard the news that Steve Jobs had died I thought to myself:

  • Is the death of Steve Jobs, my generation’s or avocation’s JFK moment?
  • Will people forever remember where they were when they heard that Steve Jobs died?
  • Have people ever felt that about a business leader before?

And second, in talking with one of my co-founders, Julie Anixter, the question was sparked about whether you can have sustainable innovation without someone fanatical in charge of innovation that isn’t afraid to tell people that their solution sucks and send them back to the drawing board, pushing them towards greatness instead of feeling the need to praise and accept the merely good. This has been the popular outside in perspective on Steve Jobs’ approach to innovation. Is this what it takes? What do you think?

Now, I’ve posed a lot of questions in this piece because death presents more questions than it answers, and I’ll leave you with one or two more.

Am I completely off base here? Will Apple fall into complete disrepair again now that Steve Jobs is gone, again?

Sound off in the comments.

I hope to see you next week at the Business Innovation Conference 2011 or the following week at the Back End of Innovation conference – October 17-19, 2011 in sunny San Diego.

You might also enjoy Renee Blodgett’s post here.

If you’ve read this far down, here are a couple of bonus items:

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