In 2011, the overarching question for companies both large and small was simple: How can we innovate like Apple? This past year, with the tech giant showing some chinks in its armor, the business community found itself casting around for a new source of inspiration.
That came in large part from startup culture. Even the big players are gleaning innovation strategies from lean, agile upstarts as they try to provide talented employees with the encouragement and flexibility required to generate path-breaking ideas. (Read Soren Kaplan’s post for more on that.)
While companies began embracing the new ways of startups, they simultaneously rejected standard practices of the past. Casualty number one: brainstorming. Long regarded as one of the keys to stoking innovative ideas, the technique was largely dismissed as a largely ineffective process. In fact, according to scientific studies, we’re more likely to hatch ideas on our own than in groups. As Jonah Lehrer wrote in The New Yorker and Susan Cain explained in The New York Times (and in her book Quiet), groups give rise to more social pressure than useful creativity. Writes Cain: "People in groups tend to sit back and let others do the work; they instinctively mimic others’ opinions and lose sight of their own; and, often succumb to peer pressure. The Emory University neuroscientist Gregory Berns found that when we take a stance different from the group’s, we activate the amygdala, a small organ in the brain associated with the fear of rejection."
But, as Daniel Sobol argues, we can rescue teamwork from the downside of brainstorming by practicing a technique he calls deliberative discourse, collaborative communication that allows for criticism. Sobol writes, "Multiple positions and views are expressed with a shared understanding that everyone is focused on a common goal. There is no hierarchy. It’s not debate because there are no opposing sides trying to 'win.' Rather, it’s about working together to solve a problem and create new ideas." Here, he details the five precepts of deliberative discourse.
On the digital side, we saw a pronounced backlash against skeuomorphic UIs. Despite its wonky-sounding label, digital skeuomorphism refers to a design derived from an analog object (think of iBooks’ faux-wood bookshelf). Steve Jobs was a big fan of the approach, which makes technology more approachable by giving users familiar references. The problem, say critics, is that these symbols are merely ornamental flourishes that, in some cases, aren’t even relevant anymore (take, for example, the Rolodex icon for "filing" contacts). Co.Design published two posts that took skeuomorphism to task (here and here) and one by an ex-Apple designer. But Apple itself issued the decisive blow to skeuomorphism when it dismissed its iOS chief, Scott Forstall, and ceded power over its software design to Jony Ive. We’ll see if it’s enough for Apple regain its status as a great American innovator.