I’ve written a couple of posts recently about the importance of being earnest. No, not the Oscar Wilde play, but the importance of understanding, communicating and simply “being” what and who you are as a company when you innovate. The common mistake that many firms have is that they believe innovation is about a cool product. While a cool product is interesting, unless your firm has clear goals, plans and trajectories, a product is here today, gone tomorrow. That why I wrote about innovating your “purpose“, not just your product.
Today, I’d like to further that argument by using two simple examples – Apple and HP. I’m writing as Jobs steps down and Apotheker steps up. Jobs is stepping down due to health reasons, and his imminent departure leaves us wondering if Apple can be Apple without Jobs. Will Apple sustain its ability to predict the market, perhaps even lead its customers to want its new products and services? Well, since Jobs returned Apple has had a clear vision and purpose. The real question is: can Apple sustain that vision and purpose without Jobs, or does it become a more careful, cautious company?
On the other hand, Leo Apotheker takes over at HP and seems ready to jettison the last 15 years of investment in consumer hardware. The story goes that Apotheker wants HP to be cool like Apple. This, in my mind, is missing the point, and missing the entire history of HP. HP has a backstory – and one actually very similar to Apple. Further HP had far more people who knew and respected HP for its history, its culture and its story. Apotheker either doesn’t know, or doesn’t care, about this core story and its importance sense of purpose.
HP was Apple before Jobs was even born. HP was, and in many parts of its business still is, the engineer’s choice of product. Raise your hand if you are an engineer and had an HP calculator in school, or if you are in any scientific endevor and use HP equipment. HP stood for something – high quality, tools for people who did important thinking work, equipment that worked and lasted, built for engineers by engineers. For some reason, none of this seems to matter anymore, yet I suspect that even today, HP has as big, and as loyal, a customer base as Apple, they’ve just forgotten about it or de-emphasized what was and still is a loyal HP base. HP was never cool. In fact HP products sat in engineering labs, in places where real work got done, and on belt loops and pocket protectors. But HP products built stuff, took men to the moon, designed and ran chemical plants. HP products, and the loyal people who used them, designed and built the stuff that all innovators now use as platforms.
And that’s the point of this post – create a story about who and what you are and your value proposition, build a loyal following and innovate with those loyal followers. After all, they are far more likely to adopt your new products and services than prospects and strangers who don’t know your products. As a loyal HP guy I acquired one of the first HP handheld devices, the Jornada, even though the Palm seemed like a better product, because I was convinced that HP made better equipment. HP is trying to be the next IBM, or SAP, and wants to be cool like Apple. HP should look back to its history and decide to re-invigorate what made it great – great, innovative products that stood the test of time for people doing serious work who needed excellent machines.
I’m sure that’s not in vogue right now as Google, Facebook, Twitter and god help us, Groupon take all the publicity. We are at another “eyeballs” inflection point, where solid firms like HP believe innovation is about capturing more prospects through interesting interfaces, rather than capitalizing on their intellectual property, reputation and loyal customer base. When innovating, copying someone else’s strategy or persona is akin to wearing someone else’s clothes and driving their car – you may borrow their look and feel for a while, but inevitably your persona shines through. HP was never cool, and that should be OK. HP was a great company, is, and will be in the future if it realizes who and what it is, and who and what it is for. HP needs to be itself – it’s real self, only better and faster.
HP can’t adopt another firm’s strategy or pretend to be a fashionable consumer company. That’s not in its roots, its purpose and not where its loyal customers are. Right now HP stands to risk angering its loyal engineering, technical and scientific customers who number in the tens of millions, trying to become something that it is not, a follower in consumer goods and software, a purveyor of “cool. Those fickle customers may not accept HP’s entrance into “cool” and the die-hard HP fan boys are losing heart as HP increasingly seems set to ignore the stuff that made HP what it is. HP needs to be what HP was, and is, rather than what it thinks Apple is. Only then can it be successful innovating.
Jeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of “Make us more Innovative”, and innovateonpurpose.blogspot.com.