Business Week Column: Innovation Made Incarnate

Much of Apple’s success relies on the inspiration CEO Steve Jobs has fostered in employees. Here are seven steps to turn inspiration into innovation

By Robert Brands


When Apple (AAPL) unveils its iSlate in late January, the tablet computer will be just the latest wowing of the world by the pioneering computer company. With its iPhone, iPod, and MacBook laptops, plus the original Macintosh computer itself (and the “1984” TV commercial that pitched it), Apple’s innovation has changed technology—and the people who use it.

Often overlooked in these rollouts, though, has been the inspiration behind the products. How does a man—CEO Steve Jobs, who co-founded Apple with Steve Wozniak—foster such an upwelling of inspiration? How does a leader motivate teams in the organization and transform consumers into loyalists? More importantly, how can you foster such inspiration in your organization?

Before you can answer these big questions, you need to start with another: How inspired is your organization? In a survey on, a Web site I created with tools and resources for innovators, I asked, “Which elements of an innovation process and/or culture are in place today?” Half the respondents answered “inspiration.” The good news was that half realized the need for inspiration. The bad news was that just as many didn’t recognize its importance or hadn’t put a process in place.

I’ve worked in innovation for 25 years, and over a 10-year span, I was charged with delivering at least one new product a year. In my new book, Robert’s Rules of Innovation, I captured the imperatives of how to create and sustain innovation. In writing the book and creating, I’ve sought to encourage the creative spark that ignites broader thinking and inspiration, which are vital to the continued growth of any organization. But you must first identify its source within your organization and channel that wellspring.

Inspiration from Everywhere

Inspiration goes beyond the thinking that brought us various Apple products. Inspiration is the creative spark that drives individuals or organizations to consider and create new products, services, or internal processes. It’s how people think, collaborate, and then put new ideas into motion. Inspiration comes from anyone and everyone. It reaches from the chief executive to the customer-service help desk, from the factory floor to the retail showroom, from the longest-tenured employee to the newest hire as well as the customer hitting the Web site and submitting ideas via a “suggestions” box or a phone call. Savvy innovators even welcome partners, suppliers, and vendors into the process. No one gets a pass from thinking creatively about how to improve the company, its products, or its processes.

Back in the 1990s, I ran a company called Airspray. The category-killer we created and patented was an inexpensive mechanical pump that created instant foam. With it, we transformed liquid soap into a foamy cleanser. We began with a model for the hair-care industry and then added products for skin care, hand soap, and eventually body wash. This progression met my mandate for a new product each year.

But it all began with inspiration. I led the innovation team that came up with the original ideas. At the table were representatives from across the organization—finance, R&D, sales and marketing, customer service. I empowered them to think creatively by breaking down the barriers between my C-suite status to become “one of them” in the creativity process. I was still a leader, of course, but one who welcomed ideas from all corners, whether that meant engineers or consumers. Our efforts paid off. We sold Airspray in 2006 for $187 million, or 13 times Ebitda.

While thoughtful leadership has fueled other businesses, inspiration remains the spark that drives the creative process.

How can your organization inspire innovation? Try these seven tips:

• Make inspiration an imperative. In Robert’s Rules of Innovation, I write that successful innovation in an organization is fueled by 10 imperatives, including leadership, ownership, accountability, risk and reward, and value creation. None is more important, though, than inspiration. An inspired leader, organization, and process engage the team, welcome them into the act of innovative, and heighten chances for success.

• Install and empower a chief innovation officer, or CIO. Inspiration and innovation need a champion, someone who helps develop ideas, fosters an environment that encourages creative camaraderie, and steers the organization toward greatness. In small or midsize companies, this could be the owner or CEO. In large organizations with an especially thoughtful or charismatic leader (like Jobs), the CEO can serve this role as well. But generally big organizations need a CIO empowered by the CEO to push projects along the various pipelines.

• Set goals and create enthusiasm to meet them. Where do you want your organization to go today and tomorrow? Does the company need one new product this year, or a new process-management or workflow initiative? Although the CIO is the leader (after the CEO or other top exec), the team must embrace the challenge as a shared goal to be met together. Buy-in comes with small wins that need to be recognized and failures that must be tolerated. Measure achievements and use a reward system of monetary or recognition awards. You’ll find sometimes recognition is reward enough to keep troops engaged and motivated.

• Create the right culture. Inspiration is bigger than individuals—it must permeate the organization. This is more than hanging motivational posters on the walls. Host regular brainstorming sessions to welcome new ideas. Hold team-building exercises, where inspiration is the focus. Inspiration must transcend hierarchy and silos. Together, the team enjoys success and learns from the lessons of failure.

• Imbue inspiration as a start-to-finish endeavor. On its album Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd laments, “plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines.” Life and business are littered with uncompleted tasks. Set deadlines, and again, use rewards to help ensure they’re met. See projects through. Strive for the completed task.

• Observe, measure, and know. Inspiration—like innovation itself—doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It must be measured to gauge performance and ensure a chance at success. Each project team must have a leader in charge of shepherding projects to their respective waypoints and end goals. Set up processes and milestones. Establish checkpoints to weigh accomplishments.

• Never relent. Inspiration is about the journey, not the destination. Herb Kohler, the bearded, 70-year-old chairman of the plumbing fixture company that bears his name, still heads Kohler’s monthly new-product development meetings—that is, when he’s not collaborating with legendary golf course designer Pete Dye on a new development or leading the company’s acquisition of Scotland’s famed Hamilton Hall in St. Andrews. At a time when his contemporaries are content just to hit the links, Kohler remains committed to product innovation—and helping to provide the inspiration behind it.

Inspiration sparks, propels, and steers innovation, which, in turn, fosters creative thinking and new business development. It motivates teams, encourages shared goals, and ultimately drives value to the bottom line.

Robert Brands is the founder of, and the author of Robert’s Rules of Innovation: A 10-Step Program for Corporate Survival, which will be published in March.