The Consequences of Moving Fast and Breaking Things

Your association may have a track record of tech success, but the big question is, how do you keep up the pace? A number of recent developments from the world of Apple offer up some food for thought.

In more ways than one, Apple’s last couple of weeks haven’t been its best.

(Side note: I know, I know … I just blogged about Apple recently. I’m writing about technology, so Apple is a great subject, OK?!?)

A company whose breakneck pace of innovation has long been admired by its users and imitated by its competitors, Apple has looked a little human of late, with a series of news stories that suggest it could face a challenging road ahead.

A close call: In the ongoing patent saga between Apple and Samsung, Samsung nearly landed a serious body blow a couple weeks ago—but things eventually worked in Apple’s favor. First, Apple had lost a patent suit and was precariously close to facing an import ban on some of its older products, including the iPhone 4. (The company narrowly avoided the ban because the Obama administration intervened [PDF], the first time since 1987 that a sitting president had vetoed a trade ban by the International Trade Commission.) In a turnabout-is-fair-play development late last week, Apple won a similar patent battle against Samsung, with a major difference: The patents Samsung was found guilty of violating weren’t seen as fundamental to the functioning of a mobile device, whereas the ones Apple did were. (Hence, why Obama showed Apple some love.) Either way, it was certainly a close one.

A little pressure: A Fox Business report suggests that CEO Tim Cook is getting pressure from his board to innovate faster. Apple has had a number of  base hits in the past couple of years—the iPhone 5, the iPad Mini, the MacBook Air—but little since the original iPad that appears ready to blow minds. In other words, the board has been reading the tech blogs, many of which have been saying this since the iPhone 5 came out last year. (That said, the recently updated Mac Pro, niche product that it is, is pretty epic. It may not be a home run, but it’s at least a ground-rule double.)

A harbinger? With all that pressure to innovate comes a little pressure to not innovate from the Justice Department. Well, in certain ways, that is: Apple is still facing lingering effects from losing a price-fixing lawsuit earlier this year. (What happened? Several publishers worked with the company on a variable pricing structure for electronic books—to the detriment of competitors.) The results could prove damaging to the company’s well-entrenched business model for selling content. The Justice Department’s proposed sanctions sound painful. For one thing, Apple would have to link to competitors such as Amazon. For another, it would be limited in the kinds of contracts it makes with content providers across the board. It’s not clear what the end results will be. But a golden goose for the company could get a little tarnished.

All of this adds up to one thing: A highly regarded innovator appears to be turning a corner in Cupertino.

Every time a company comes out with a successful new idea, a hit initiative, or a clever approach, it creates new opportunities—and more pressure to live up to those expectations. And when you’re successful, everyone suddenly wants a piece of the action, in good ways and bad. Small innovations raise big questions, legal or otherwise. Increasingly, Apple is finding itself consumed with side battles and facing sudden pressure to live up to past victories. (Which isn’t to say they won’t. Just that the pressure is on.)

This is something that associations might be feeling with their own endeavors—be they websites or new approaches to closed communities. Your reputation as a high-flyer won’t last if you can’t keep up your momentum or if something clips your wings.

Apple still has a lot of life left in it, but these recent incidents show that even the most innovative corporate structures have to answer for the gaps a quick-moving culture creates and the constant air of expectation that comes after a successful idea.

The secret is in the pacing. Don’t play your entire hand in a single shot, but be sure to throw down a couple of cards so your members don’t think you’re bluffing. Let them know that you have big ideas coming, and those big ideas reflect their needs.

Because, no matter the company or organization, innovation is one part technology and two parts timing. If the timing’s off, the innovation may face long-term challenges.

Leave something in the tank for later.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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