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6 Ways Apple Can Stay Relevant

Continuum's Gianfranco Zaccai offers advice to businesses just starting out and those in danger of falling into complacency.

[Image: Flickr user Yutaka Tsutano

As Apple rolls out its next iteration of the iPad, I can’t help but think of Blackberry, whose demise is the classic tale of a company with a big success that becomes fearful of "breaking what’s not broken." It put its energy into perfecting what its customers loved, such as the typing experience, the unmatched security, and the BBM messaging, without investing in innovation. So when a competitor showed up with "the next big thing," the maker of "the last big thing" was left wondering what went wrong. This is exactly what’s happening with Apple.

Of course, it’s easy to admit today that I predicted in 2005 that Blackberry would be in trouble. As for Apple, concerns that the company had peaked began appearing more than a year ago, accelerated by the death of Steve Jobs. Now, as one tech writer says: "There’s a new rhythm to product releases among the biggest players in mobile tech, and increasingly, Samsung is building a reputation as the most brash and quick-to-act of what I would call the ruling triumvirate, which also includes Google and Apple. Google plays the reasoned experimenter, Apple hangs back and refines the best ideas to come out of the market, but Samsung increasingly seems willing to absorb the costs of diving headlong into new territory, just to prove it can."

What is Samsung doing right? And how can a company keep from becoming a sitting duck while remaining a cash cow? Here’s how to forge an innovative future while remaining a profitable company today.

1. Don’t believe your own PR.

As the prospectus says, "Past performance is no guarantee of future returns." A product manager who hasn’t imagined how his product might be trashed by a competitor is not doing his job.

2. Nurture change agents.

The talent to see what others do not notice and to imagine compelling innovation will turn up in many employees, not just designers. Give them the tools and the space to explore what people really think, do, and feel, and the means to create a receptive audience within the organization.

3. Don’t trust focus groups.

Of course customers are central to the innovation process, but you need to understand not only what they say but what they are unable or unwilling to say. That’s design research and actionable strategy. For example, one of our clients was testing children’s beverages with a group of mothers in Brazil. There was hesitation among the moms to say, "That's healthy enough to give to my kid," when we showed prototype formulations and packages. When we began presenting some really new ideas, the situation became even worse as group-think lampooning set in among the group. When asked their opinion, they all went along with each other, even though, judging from their facial expressions, we could tell they didn’t agree. Faces are the telltale signs of focus groups.

4. Fail early and often.

The more mistakes you make, the more you learn. The sooner in the product development cycle you make them, the less they cost. Some companies test their new products to death in a futile attempt at perfection, but that perfection can only be attained after a product has been tested in the marketplace. For instance, the Apple Newton Message Pad might have been a failure—it was too big and the handwriting software was inaccurate—but it opened the door to the ground-breaking Apple iPhone.

5. Make your best products obsolete.

Toyota took just this step with its hybrid cars. Initially, the carmaker’s development effort was all out of proportion to the market demand, but Toyota wasn’t waiting for another company to beat them to the foreseeable future ... and that future is now. Companies naturally worry about cannibalizing their own business, but if they don’t do it, someone else will. Think of your company not as the provider of a product but as the provider of the benefit of that product—by the best means available, which may not be the product you are selling so profitably today.

6. Design a total experience that people will love.

There are multiple touch points between the customer and the producer: the buzz, the store, the product, the packaging, the user manuals (or, ideally, the lack thereof), the service center, and so on. Every one of these should be carefully designed—not adequate but great!

Marketplaces change quickly—someone smart and creative is always out to get you. Design researchers and envisioners are your company’s immune system. People with healthy immune systems still suffer illness and infection, but they recover. Companies with healthy design resources will still take hits from their competitors, but they stand the best chance of coming back with a new winner.

[Images via Shutterstock]