Thursday, March 1, 2012

Apple's Product Development Process

My friend & co-author Vinay Dabholkar and I have been going back and forth for some time now trying to discover the essence of the Apple innovation model. In one exchange, I described it to him in shorthand as “Steve Jobs brainstorms with his key team, identifies an opportunity, and then shapes the product. Top down. Dependent on Steve Jobs’ intuition / insight. Often right, sometimes wrong.” Vinay responded: “What is the evidence? Has Steve Jobs or any Apple employee mentioned it anywhere? It could be true but I don’t want to treat lack of information as a proof.”

I read the book Inside Apple (London: John Murray, 2012) by Adam Lashinsky, Senior Editor of Fortune magazine, hoping to find an authoritative account of the Apple innovation process under Steve Jobs with which I could provide such evidence to Vinay. The good news is that I did discover some of its elements. But, several questions remain.

Opportunity Identification & Product Definition

I always thought that Apple under Steve Jobs was like an Italian design house under a Salvatore Ferragamo or a Gucci. Lashinsky confirms this when he describes Apple as a consumer-electronics fashion house. Jobs provided the vision: “To harness the power of computers to improve human life.” Jobs and his key colleagues were all enthusiastic subscribers to this vision, and were able to define the right products because they were building products for themselves. Jobs was a master at defining a product that would carve out a unique position for itself in the marketplace.

Lashinsky gives a good example of Jobs’ genius in this direction in the case of the iPhone: “a revolutionary device combining the convenience of a smartphone with the music storage and listening capability of an iPod” coupled with “a design-snob-worthy look, a user-friendly software interface, and a wow factor” (p. 3). Jobs was clearly the final decision-maker as far as design choices were concerned, and Lashinsky points out that Apple has never used techniques like crowdsourcing that are a staple of Google’s innovation process.

What enabled Jobs to come up with such products with such a distinctive positioning? We don’t have an MRI scan of his brain, but he clearly had the ability to synthesize diverse design elements together in a unique way.

Product Integrity

Of course, the ability to come up with a new, distinctive product concept that meets an unarticulated need of users is only one of the critical abilities needed to make a successful product. A product that depends on synthesis, on getting the mix just right, and providing a seamless experience to customers must have a high degree of what Clark and Fujimoto called “Product Integrity” in their classic Harvard Business Review article of the same title.

Lashinsky provides several insights into how Apple under Steve Jobs ensured product integrity. Jobs believed in an obsessive focus on the product, down to the last detail (again like a master designer?). He believed that attention to detail shows that you really care about the user. Such perfectionism pervaded the company with Jobs willing to settle for nothing but the best. Jobs’ emphasis on simplicity and elegance is also well known.

Integrity was also facilitated by the way Apple was designed as an organization. While the broad product design would be created by the Design department under Jobs’ protégé Jonathan Ive, the Apple New Product Process would start after the design process started. The main players in this were Apple’s supply-chain team and its engineering corps (p. 56). How would the inevitable conflicts be resolved? – Primarily by what’s “the right thing for the product” (though it’s not completely clear how this would be established if you don’t believe in looking at market data or consumer preferences! Present CEO and the architect of Apple’s supply chain, Tim Cook enabled Apple to ensure integration even when working with external vendors. A “design, build and test” cycle within Apple at the prototyping stage would be repeated with vendors to ensure the user experience was maintained in mass manufacture. Lashinsky calls this integration across partners “control without owning.”

Focus on a single product or limited set of products

Another way in which Jobs ensured quality and an unforgettable user experience was through his emphasis on remaining focused by “saying no.” For example, when he returned to Apple in the late 1990s, he focused all of Apple’s attention on the iMAC. He often advised other entrepreneurs to “just pick one thing that you can do great.” Under Jobs, in an effort to make outstanding products, Apple had a maximum of three projects at any time, avoided feature creep, and never chased revenue for revenue’s sake. (There’s a clear lesson for product start-ups here – you can create outstanding products only if you are completely focused on the product you are developing. I have always wondered whether Indian product start-ups that do a lot of other stuff in parallel to ensure cash flows were doing the right thing – after reading this book, I am more convinced than ever that they are not!!).

Functional Structure

Jobs encouraged specialization at Apple and ran an organization that had a functional structure (I suppose this could work in a company of Apple’s size only because of Apple’s focus on a few products at any time and the ability of Jobs, the design team and the engineering team to hold things together). Jobs believed in really small teams of outstanding people to achieve challenging tasks: for example, according to Lashinsky, Apple had only two crack engineers working on the Safari browser for the iPAD.

People Policies

Contrary to contemporary folklore about what an ideal product company (think Google or 3M) should be like to work for, Apple under Jobs would never have won an award for the best place to work in. Jobs wanted Apple to be a place where you would love to work because you were addicted to the work and creating the coolest products, not because it was a nice place to work in. Obviously this suited some people at least: Apple’s core team, particularly at the senior level remained unchanged for several years under Jobs. Lashinsky’s account suggests that Apple could be a stressful place to work in: an employee’s status in the company is related to which project she is working on and can change rapidly if corporate priorities (as then decided by Jobs) changed.

Another challenge to Apple employees according to Lashinsky was Jobs’ obsession with secrecy. Walls would suddenly come up and your access could be suddenly withdrawn when a new product became Apple’s focus. Information within Apple is distributed on a “need to know” basis. A discussion meeting would not start unless everyone present was “disclosed” on it, i.e., authorized to be privy to information regarding the product. What is the logic of this obsession? According to Lashinsky, every Apple launch is like a Hollywood movie debut and Jobs believed it was important to build up anticipation and not allow competitors time to respond. Further, avoiding premature release of information could help avoid cannibalization of existing products. Controls on information flows could also ensure coordinated messaging at the time of a launch.

Integrated Branding

Under Steve Jobs, Apple was great at integrated branding, but unlike in the case of the supply chain where this integration was achieved through organizational design, here it was dependent on Jobs himself.


In an era where many believe that products are passé and solutions are all that matter, Jobs showed that products are not dinosaurs yet. Many of the design and product marketing principles that Steve Jobs espoused are clearly articulated in Inside Apple. But opportunity identification and timing – two key factors in Steve Jobs’ success – still remain a product of the black box representing Jobs’ right brain. Perhaps neuroscience will one day unveil the secrets of his creative process.


  1. Really enjoyed reading this..A question comes to my mind - was apple under jobs a demonstration of the creative use of monarchy in innovation, design and governance?

  2. Thanks for sharing this, Rishi. I will definitely read "Inside Apple". From what you have described the depiction seems to be Jobs-centric. A product such as iPod or iPhone involves a number of key decisions as it goes from concept to cash - at least several tens if not in hundreds. They are about its features, look-and-feel, make-vs-buy, revenue model, go-to-market etc. It is very unlikely that Jobs would take all of them. Question is: Which ones would Jobs take? Which ones would Jonathan Ive (Chief Designer) take? How about Tony Fadell (the guy who head iPod for a 6-7 years)? What about one level below these guys? What decisions would they take / influence?

    Perhaps final decision was always with Jobs. However, it is possible that ideas came from different sources. If so, which ones? "iCon" a book by Young and Simon narrates following joke about Jobs narrated by Donn Denman: "If you wanted to get him to agree to a new idea, something that was a good idea but that he hadn't thought of, you told him the idea, and then let him reject it. A couple of weeks later he would come rushing over to you and tell you how he just had a great idea and would proceed to tell you the same idea you had told him earlier." (p 76)

    This was in early 80s. I am sure Jobs changed / evolved. So how did it work last decade? It will be good to find out.

  3. Good read, I like the comparison drawn with the Italian luxury designers- in a way very fascinating as Jobs created luxury for mass consumption, a paradox that one cannot NOT believe.