The most fitting tribute a grieving world can make to the late Steve Jobs is to assure and secure a business environment committed to the standard of innovation embodied by Apple's founding chairman.
The global accolades following his untimely death from cancer Oct. 5 at age 56 speculate it could be generations before another genius inventor singularly transforms our rigid existence and expectations. That implies innovation is a fluke rather than a guided force for making change more constructive than disruptive. And that is an urgent reason to reexamine our personal and business priorities.
Designing three new products (the iPod, iPhone and iPad) that radically transformed culture, economics and consumer behavior, and redesigning two companies -- Apple and Pixar -- for the digital age was all about the way things worked, not just looked.
Jobs spawned a consumer-centric tech revolution and created wealth for many beyond himself and his companies. Apple's market cap ballooned from $1.7 billion in 1997 to $351 billion today, becoming the world's most valuable company; but most of Jobs' $6 billion in personal wealth has been generated from Pixar.
None of it would have been possible without the innovation precedence Jobs instilled at every level of his organizations. While he created an international corporation, neither Apple or Pixar have been bound by typical institutional inhibitions and limitations.
Empowering employees to think, act and create in an innovative, unconventional manner requires more than a mandate. It demands a protected dynamic that permeates a corporate infrastructure, strategy and conduct, which recognizes and respects innovation as the means to a much better end.
That is how Jobs reconstructed and redirected Apple when he returned to the fold in 1979 after an involuntary 12-year absence. Tolerance, respect and support for innovation are how Jobs toppled IBM and Microsoft as computer forces back then. He made innovation priority one at every level, compared to what it is at most companies: an afterthought, or an adjunct of research and development, heavily shaped by budgetary considerations.
The caliber of innovation that Jobs exemplified and put into motion emanated from inside the soul of a driven, visionary leader who took his cues from no one (except, maybe, consumers) and made no excuses. He defied the executive leadership gurus like Peter Drucker who insist that innovation is the result of methodical analysis of opportunity within particular companies or industries, and beyond in broader social and demographic trends.
Jobs relied more on his gut instincts for focus and simplicity, and less on consumer research. "You have to trust in something," Jobs told a Stanford commencement audience in June 2005, "your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life."
That cornerstone of Jobs' innovative fire has made all the difference in all our lives. In the three years that the U.S. economy and much of the global economy have been on the skids, Jobs and Apple introduced the first iterations of iPhones and the first- and second-generation iPad -- igniting a global tablet market of 60 million units this year, surging to 275 million units by 2015, according to research firm HIS iSuppli.
In that same time, The U.S. Department of Commerce established an advisory committee and guidelines for improving the measurement and levels of domestic innovation in government (right down to communities), the public and the private sectors. The objective: the design, invention, development and implementation of new or altered products, services, processes, systems, organization structures, or business models anywhere in the universe. The results so far: let's just say the U.S. government has been preoccupied with more pressing matters.
Since then, mostly Silicon Valley players -- including Apple, Amazon, Google Twitter, Facebook and Groupon -- have led consumer behavior-changing innovation, partly because it is in their DNA and they are agile enough to set and respond to market forces. They are established companies that remain wired as startups.
And, yes, there is even some evidence among them of the rare spark of an adopted kid from Cupertino, CA, who drops out of college to build his first $1,000 computer in his parent's garage in 1976. But even Google executives have conceded there is no guarantee of innovation trickling down or up any organization.
So while economics, politics and society in general wrestle with their many demons, innovation generally has been left to the whims and wishes of a relative few companies ,compared to the whole sprinkled throughout nearly every industry. The problem: there just aren't enough players keeping the innovation light as bright as the iconic Jobs.
Sadly, a cover story on "The Failed Promise of Innovation in the U.S." published in BusinessWeek (now Bloomberg) in June 2009 still holds true: An undeniable innovation shortfall of more than a decade continues to prevail, contributing to -- rather than helping to solve -- the current economic crisis.
Unlike Apple's designed disruption, any unpredictable technological breakthroughs have been "positive black swans," the result of unexpected events with huge positive consequences that look inevitable but aren't, according to economic author Nassim Nicholas Taleb.
Jobs' legacy is that he didn't wait to be told, or funded or fumble into transformation. He integrated his inventive spirit into the fabric of Apple and made it the standard against which everything the company did would be measured. Jobs demonstrated how innovation can be a productive, lucrative change agent if completely incorporated and embraced within a company for the long term.
The biggest challenge other companies face is understanding that this objective is within their grasp.
Bruce Nussbaum, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and professor of innovation and design, recently wrote in the Harvard Business Review that for innovation to save us, we must first understand why it has so far failed us. A mere 9% of public and private companies engaged in generating growth and new value (in the form of taxes, revenues, income or jobs) from innovation prior to the start of the Great Recession in 2008, he says.
"By not investing in traditional Made in America, the U.S. appears to have given up much of the economic benefits of high technology. The making part of the economy is essential to the innovation part of the economy," Nussbaum argues. He points to stubbornly high unemployment, low wages for college graduates, crushing household debt and falling personal income as evidence of the lingering innovation shortfall.
Acknowledging that it will take a generation for the U.S. to regain its innovation footing and reverse its innovation decline, Nussbaum calls for federal policy mandates: invest in the making of things, encourage venture capital models, and shift focus to startups and entrepreneurship away from big corporations. Good luck with that -- or accomplishing anything in Washington until well after the 2012 election!
I've got a better idea. Leverage all the well-deserved adulation for Jobs into creating simple templates, campaigns and argument for making innovation a prerequisite for any company fixed on value creation. Keep it simple: Start with the fundamental advice Jobs offered in his oft-quoted Stanford commencement address that seems eerily prophetic now and far from stereotypic corporate sturm und drang.
"...Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary. ... stay hungry, stay foolish," he said.
And go forth and innovate to celebrate the life of Jobs.