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Apple CEO Talks Creativity, Innovation and Why People Trump Process

Eric Risberg/AP

Let’s start with the simple premise articulated by Victoria Grady on this blog last week: “employees are the organization—use them.” All too often that is forgotten in our discussion of government. The notion of “government” as some gigantic, amorphous entity—hard to comprehend and even harder to change—misses the point that it is people that undergird it all. You’re here to learn what’s excellent in government? Point us to the most excellent people in government and we’ll show you.

(Seriously—shoot us a note at

The most successful organizations grasp that it is people, specific individuals, that create excellence. Apple CEO Tim Cook made this point in an extensive interview with Bloomberg Businessweek.

Cook's response to a question about how Apple deals with public demand for continuous innovation:

There’s more pressure that comes from within than from the outside. Our customers have an incredibly high bar for us. We have an even higher bar for ourselves. So we want to do great work, and yeah, people are always talking about what we may do next and when it might happen, but honestly we’re driven much more internally by great people who want to do great work…These are people that have very high standards that are driven to do things beyond what other people have thought. And I think it’s that ambition and that desire and that thrust for excellence that make creating new things even more likely.

Cook's fantastic definition of creativity—a definition that recognizes the individual and elevates people over process:

Creativity is not a process, right? It’s people who care enough to keep thinking about something until they find the simplest way to do it. They keep thinking about something until they find the best way to do it. It’s caring enough to call the person who works over in this other area, because you think the two of you can do something fantastic that hasn’t been thought of before. It’s providing an environment where that feeds off each other and grows.

Cook goes further, saying that creativity and innovation are not positional—you can’t have one person in your organization be in charge of innovation—it has to be cultural:

Creativity and innovation are something you can’t flowchart out. Some things you can, and we do, and we’re very disciplined in those areas. But creativity isn’t one of those. A lot of companies have innovation departments, and this is always a sign that something is wrong when you have a VP of innovation or something. You know, put a for-sale sign on the door.

Everybody in our company is responsible to be innovative, whether they’re doing operational work or product work or customer service work. So in terms of the pressure, all of us put a great deal of pressure on ourselves.

The entire interview is long and well worth reading. There are a lot of lessons in here for feds with a mind toward transforming government. Key point: Excellence comes from people, not process.

Who is excellent in government?

Tell us about them at or in the comments. 

Mark Micheli is Special Projects Editor for Government Executive Media Group. He's the editor of Excellence in Government Online and contributes to GovExec, NextGov and Defense One. Previously, he worked on national security and emergency management issues with the US Treasury Department and the Department of Homeland Security. He's a graduate of the Coro Fellows Program in Public Affairs and studied at Drake University.

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