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Ten Lessons from the Coolest Company Anywhere

In the latest edition of Fast Company, Farhad Manjoo writes about how everyone wants to be like Steve Jobs and his powerhouse company. Apple is now the largest company in the tech universe. And let’s face it – the coolest. Everyone wants to become the “Apple of (insert industry here)”, but few know how. 
 
Drawing on former employees, current partners, and others who have watched Apple for many years, he offers his assessment of Apple’s distinctive traits. Henrik Werdelin joined in with a blog on the things Google can learn from Apple. I’ve synthesized the two articles and produced the top ten lessons (with modest suggestions) on how they might apply to the church.
 
1.      Go Into Your Cave. Apple is famous for its “behind closed doors” meetings. In truth, this is less about privacy and more about its desire to set its own agenda and tune out all the tech wags – competitors, industry observers, analysts, bloggers, and journalists - who constantly spew torrents of advice in their direction. Behind its door, Apple can ignore them all. If they listened to Silicon Valley, they would get bogged down in specs and speeds instead of dreaming up iphones and ipads.
 
Application: It’s easy to get caught up in “church junkie” world, meaning a preoccupation with what other churches are doing, or the latest trends and techniques featured in conferences and blogs. Being in a cave doesn’t mean cocooning, but it does mean creatively dreaming on your own to determine how best to connect with those you are trying to reach. After all, that’s how the churches you now emulate came up with their creative ideas!
 
2.      It’s Okay to Be King. It’s hip to be “bottom-up” in today’s tech world. Not at Apple. It’s a top-down leadership model. How did the iDVD come into existence? Steve Jobs walked into a meeting, picked up a marker and went over to the whiteboard. He drew a rectangle. “Here’s the new application,” he said. “It’s got one window. You drag your video into the window. Then you click the button that says BURN. That’s it. That’s what we’re going to make.” And they did. And rather than stifling innovation, it ignited it.
 
Application: Don’t be afraid to let leaders lead, and if you are one of those leaders, don’t apologize for taking that lead. This isn’t about being autocratic or dictatorial, but it is about blazing the trail, casting the vision, and setting the target on the wall. 
 
3.      Just Say No. It may surprise people to discover that Jobs’ primary role at Apple is to turn things down. “This is not the Apple philosophy” is one of his most important and frequent leadership declarations. As a result, Apple releases fewer product s, but at greater levels of success.
 
Application: There are countless things people clamor for a church to do; good things, helpful things. But not all are mission-centric, and not all reflect your philosophy of ministry. Don’t be afraid to say no – in fact, it may be your most important job.
 
4.      Serve Your Customer. No, Really. Apple’s competitors have adopted strategies that amount to customer avoidance rather than service (ever been sent to an outsourced call center?). When Apple devised its retail strategy a decade ago, the company had a single overriding goal: to launch stores that were unlike anything that customers had previously associated with the computer industry. Further, they researched how people did want to be served. Their research landed on a model based on a hotel concierge desk, re-creating the same friendliness you’d find in a Four Seasons Hotel lobby. This led to the Genius Bar, which is the heart and soul of every Apple Store. 
 
Application: There is nothing more intimidating than for an unchurched person to attend a church. Ever thought about researching what an unchurched person would most want a church experience to be like? No, not in terms of theology; in terms of treatment. Try thinking through how to best serve them. No, really.
 
5.      Kill the Past. No other company re-imagines the fundamental parts of its business so frequently, and with so much gusto, as Apple does. Apple has adopted new operating systems and underlying chip architectures several times – decisions that have rendered its installed base instantly obsolete. For example, an Apple customer recently emailed Jobs to ask whether Apple would continue to support the first iPhone, which launched in 2007. Jobs’ response - “Sorry, no.” This willingness to “kill the past” has allowed Apple to continually innovate. 
 
Application: We all know the seven last words of the church: “We’ve never done it that way before.” Apple would suggest seven more: “We’ve always done it that way before.” Don’t get tied down to sacred cows. Go ahead and bury what is dead before it starts to stink, and kill a few “live” things as well in order to pave the way for what is even better.
 
6.      Turn Feedback Into Inspiration. One of Jobs’ favorite quotes is from Henry Ford who turned out the Model T automobile: “If I’d have asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, ‘A faster horse!’” Apple seldom listens to even its most passionate customers about what they should develop next. It’s not that they ignore them; they simply choose to let customer ideas inspire rather than dictate. For example, the netbook has been out for several years, and people have clamored for Apple to produce one. Instead of jumping on the netbook bandwagon, they let themselves get inspired. In January of 2010, they unveiled the iPad – which isn’t a netbook. It’s both more, and less – but anything but a faster horse.
 
Application:   In ministry, it’s tempting to attempt to please as many people as you can, and to give them what they want in terms of services and ministries, classes and experiences. But it’s often better to use their ideas as inspiration, not direction; as a means, not an end. People often can’t envision what they really want – but you can. We want a singles ministry! Okay, get inspired – go after the real need and see what you can come up with that is more than an immediate mixer.
 
7.      Don’t Invent, Reinvent. Jobs touts each Apple creation as unique and original. Detractors insist that they all borrow freely from preexisting technologies. They’re both right. To use a musical analogy, Apple’s specialty is the remix. It takes the best ideas bubbling up around the tech world and makes them its own. It’s also a great fixer, improving on everything that’s wrong with other similar products on the shelves. Was the iPad truly a “new” device? Does it even matter? Apple sold 2 million of them in the first 60 days.
 
Application: As much as you need to go into your cave (see above), there is no need to reinvent the wheel in order to lay claim to some kind of special creativity. Use your time, money and energy in synthesizing and improving what is already at hand.
 
8.      Know the Difference Between Usability and Experience.   Many tech companies thrive on making websites easy to use. Apple goes beyond usability and offers experience. Think about a traffic light; it has good usability, but is low on experience. People want both, and Apple knows it. Apple builds experience into everything – packaging, design, sales, product launches - and makes sure that it’s a compelling one.
 
Application: Many church leaders read Pine and Gilmore’s 1999 book The Experience Economy. It’s more relevant today than ever. Werdelin goes so far as to suggest that the 90’s were about technical innovation, the 00’s about social innovation, and the 10’s will be focused on innovation in the field of “Experience.” It’s certainly true from my vantage point. People are wanting to experience God, often before they decide whether to believe in Him. They make a decision to attend based on the “experience” of a website, or the drive-by of a campus. If Apple has brought together usability and experience, perhaps the church could consider bringing together content and experience.
 
9.      A Tool Doesn’t Have to Be Boring.  Let’s return to the traffic light; in Denmark, they have installed traffic lights with nicer iconography, better use of the nuances of lights, informative countdowns to when the light will change, and more. It was always a great utility, but now it’s a great experience. Every time someone interacts with something, an emotion is evoked. Apple has never made a boring tool. 
 
Application: Just because something works, or is functional, does not mean it is engaging. Think through how this might apply to apologetics (how a seeker finds answers), or discipleship (the tools and means for spiritual growth), or even the check-in process for your children’s ministry. Why simply target function, when you can have function and experience?
 
10.    No One Needs a Screwdriver. People don’t need tools; they need what tools do. They don’t want a screwdriver; they want the picture hung over their couch. Apple packages their products around the user’s needs, not around the features of the tool itself. Need to open that can of soda? No problem, the screwdriver can do that.
 
Application: Too many times we try and sell a tool to people for their spiritual lives, instead of the felt needs of their life. “Here’s a class on evangelism” as opposed to “Want to know how to answer your friend’s questions? We have a class for that.” 
 
This isn’t about trying to wed the corporate world to the church world in ways that are crass and unbiblical. It is trying to learn from one of the more amazing organizations on the planet that is connecting with culture – and even creating culture – in ways that are staggering. 
 
Got more ideas about Apple, or more applications for the church? Post away on the churchandculture.org site.
 
James Emery White
 
 
Sources     
 
“Apple Nation: 10 Lessons from the Coolest Company Anywhere” by Farhad Manjoo, Fast Company, July/August 2010. View online at http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/147/apple-nation.html
 
See also, “What Google Can Learn from Apple” by Henrik Werdelin at http://www.fastcompany.com/1669457/3-things-google-can-learn-from-apple

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