The beauty of corporate innovation lies in the incredibly varied ways enterprises can approach it. Even departments within the same organization often adopt different philosophies and methodologies to pursuing new ideas. Last month highlighted just how different innovation can look across companies in the same industry.
In October, Apple and Microsoft both announced a number of new products driven by each company’s unique innovation philosophy. The world responded to both companies, with one hot startup revealing its own philosophy. Let’s start with Apple.
Innovation Through Iteration
We firmly believe the path to long-term innovation is built on iteration and a solid user-feedback loop. Apple’s announcement of its new MacBook Pro – the first refresh since 2013 – shows how deeply the company currently embraces that concept. Rather than pushing the envelope and revealing revolutionary products, Apple’s products deliver incremental improvements.
Though the TouchBar represents a clear step forward in design and utility, it’s not the revolutionary step one might expect from the company. However, it’s a beautifully crafted device that delivers everything Apple users have come to expect. That’s because Apple now focuses on streamlining user experience and adding features that pull people deeper into the Apple ecosystem – often in ways that seem hostile to consumers.
This adoption of iteration highlights the cycle faced by many innovative companies. While Steve Jobs put Apple on the map through radical, breakthrough innovation, Tim Cook focuses on stability. As is often the case following radical CEOs, Apple’s approach to innovation has shifted to steady execution and iterative improvement of their core products.
Just days after Apple announced its MacBook Pro, Microsoft held its own hardware announcement. The company’s previous forays into hardware have impressed and won a sizeable market share, and it culminated in this event. Unlike the MacBook Pro, the Surface Studio delivered the kind of impressive innovation once reserved for Apple events.
Beyond the hardware presented, the content of the event highlighted Microsoft’s current place in the innovation lifecycle. Where Apple seems to be recovering from the loss of a radical CEO, Microsoft is emerging from 14 years with Steve Ballmer at the helm, a man who grew the company to record profits and revenue. Yet despite the impressive growth and stock performance, Microsoft was stagnating. Its innovative projects and acquisitions were largely big swings and bigger misses.
At its Surface event, CEO Satya Nadella and other Microsoft leaders delivered a vision of creativity and empowering people through technology. Rather than merely building on its traditional power centers – enterprise software and productivity support – we saw a company looking forward to new technologies like virtual reality, deeper cloud computing and more.
Where Apple has shifted to iterating its way to stability and predictable profits, Microsoft has begun pushing boundaries and thinking in radical ways. For all that, however, it still knows how to play in its traditional circles.
Solve Problems First
Many innovators are likely aware of Slack, essentially a dynamic operating system that masquerades as an internal messaging and chat app. One of the hottest product startups in the last few years, Slack has seen incredible growth by connecting and empowering teams to communicate and work better. Though it’s valued in the billions, Slack has still been struggling to break into the enterprise.
Enter Microsoft. It followed the hardware event by announcing Microsoft Teams, an expansion of its Skype acquisition that integrates the entirety of its software suite (Office 365 and more) to empower its corporate clients. Given it looks and operates nearly exactly like Slack, Microsoft shows can still play the most basic innovation game – innovation through imitation.
Slack’s response, a full-page ad in the New York Times, shows how the company’s approach to its product has made it so successful. Though the letter, shown below, ironically takes a page from the old Apple playbook, it shows the company’s dedication to solving user problems.
First, and most importantly, it’s not the features that matter. You’re not going to create something people really love by making a big list of Slack’s features and simply checking those boxes. The revolution that has led to millions of people flocking to Slack has been, and continues to be, driven by something much deeper.
While Microsoft has all the benefits and weight of a tech leader in its corner, Slack remains nimble enough to respond to user problems every day, push rapid improvements and embrace 3rd-party integrations that the weight of Microsoft’s corporate apparatus may make impossible. Though Slack may live to regret taunting Microsoft, its approach to innovation reveals Microsoft (and even Apple) may have a lot to learn – Slack just needs to hope they don’t learn too quickly.