How Any Business Can Innovate Like Apple

The Secret: See and Exploit the 'Adjacent Possible'

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Yeah, right. Innovate like Apple. You can do it. Sure.

One of the smartest guys I know is James McQuivey, who works with me at Forrester Research. James decided to take a close look at how new breakthrough products actually get created. You know, products like the iPad that make a complete change in people's behavior. Because if you do that , you can make boatloads of money. It's in his report called "Innovating the Adjacent Possible."

It's very human to think about the linear evolution that created a product like the iPad. In that linear evolution, the predecessors of the iPad include products like the Palm Pilot, Windows tablet PCs, and iPhones. It's easy to imagine that the iPad is the "natural" evolution of those products.

It's also wrong.

In fact, breakthrough new products come about from a combination of forces. Within the company and outside, people are inventing new technologies and new ways of using them. Apple sees how people are using its products and imagines what they could be doing. The environment makes an innovation possible -- both technology advances, like the big iPad touch screen, and business forces, like the digitization of media and the pressure on media companies to find new digital channels. McQuivey calls these "adjacencies" since they spring from what's happening right now. As the report says, "The cyclonic force of these converging adjacencies continues to draw in ideas, services, and companies, leading to new experiences Apple did not even anticipate."

You can do this too. It's not just about technology products -- technology changes all businesses now, which means this sort of innovation is possible whether you're in retail, financial services, packaged goods, B2B, whatever. McQuivey explains it himself in a video here. Here's how to do it:

  • Exploit the adjacent possible. Start with a clear understanding of the needs people have. Observe them. Watch what they do that frustrates them. Expand this idea to a complete product experience. And identify the adjacent possibilities your company -- or any company -- could exploit.
  • Depend on convergent adjacencies. Catalog the adjacent spaces that digital disruption is creating. Think a little wilder. How can your competitor and quasi-competitors get in the middle between you and your customer?
  • Persist in the path of innovation. Don't just make yours better, cheaper, faster, simpler. Compensate for inadequate capabilities before you need to. Go faster than you need to. Because in the world of digital disruption, you need to get there before your competitors.
  • It's not that easy, you say. If so, you can go ahead and keep making those tiny little improvements. Keep fighting for share with your traditional competitors. But somebody's going to put the pieces together to create this type of breakthrough innovation. It might as well be you.

    Josh Bernoff is senior vice president, idea development at Forrester Research and the co-author of "Empowered: Unleash Your Employees, Energize Your Customers, and Transform Your Business," a management book that teaches you how to transform your business by empowering employees to solve customer problems. He blogs at
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