A recent issue of BusinessWeek, which I used to subscribe to, had an interview with Apple CEO Tim Cook. He had some interesting thoughts in regard to some good and even pointed questions, and before I read it I first thought back to a terrific article I read a while back that compared him to, ironically, a recent CEO of once-arch-rival Microsoft.
The story is in the June 19, 2017 issue, and it’s surprisingly brief for a cover story. That made it easier reading, at least, as it didn’t take long to read.
Right away, Megan Murphy asks him if he thinks about what his legacy will be, and he responds he doesn’t think in those terms at all. It makes sense, and at least comes off as sincere – oftentimes such answers don’t, but then, a question like that is a trap of sorts. You say that you are, and it’s easy to be accused of not thinking about running the company; say you aren’t, and some will believe you aren’t serious.
The thing to remember is that he was Steve Jobs’ top lieutenant for a long time before passing away. And if you’re a good leader, you understand your company’s genesis, even if the company should not be the same now as it once was. In fact, to that end, Cook was quick to note that the company has changed and will in the future, which is true of any technology company that lasts a long time.
To close it out, Murphy asks him another big one: critics who say Apple isn’t as innovative. Here, Cook gets into something important in the entire discussion of innovation.
It’s easy, almost tempting, to think about innovators as being the ones who come first with something. Certainly, there is something to be gained from that in many instances, often more so outside of technology like in pharmaceuticals where there are years of protection from competition before generics come into play. However, it does not end there, because as Cook talks about, being the best does not necessarily mean being first.
Cook rattled off a few of Apple’s best products and how they were not the first in any of their respective categories. We can think of many others as well – Microsoft was not the first company with an operating system or an office suite, Red Hat was not the first with a commercial Linux distribution, Google was not the first with a search engine, and Facebook was not the first social network, just for starters.
Ultimately, what matters is, as Cook said, being the best. When not being first, you can improve upon what is already there. Of course, this does give the first mover the advantage of dictating what future improvements look like, to some degree, but it still comes down to who has the best product. And in coming out with a better product, the company has innovated.
Innovation does not need to be an entirely new discovery unlike anything we have seen before. Improving on something that exists is also part of that. It’s one thing Apple, like many other big tech companies, has done.
Apple is very much Tim Cook’s company now. But he also knows the company’s genesis, and keeps that in mind constantly. It will be interesting to see if Steve Blank’s provocative prediction (how’s that for some alliteration?) ends up being true in due time.