Strategic Leadership and Innovation at Apple Inc

authorsLoizos Heracleous and Angeliki Papachroni, Warwick Business School, discuss their award-winning case Strategic Leadership and Innovation at Apple Inc.

This case begins by describing Apple's near bankruptcy during the 1990s, and its remarkable turnaround under Steve Jobs since 1997. The competitive landscape in the PC industry is outlined and Apple's key strategic decisions during the 1990s, including Jobs' strategic actions to accomplish Apple's turnaround are noted. Apple's culture, approach to strategic human resource management, and innovative capacity are explored, including Apple's approach of 'deep collaboration'. A key strategic issue noted in the case is Apple's strategy of maintaining a proprietary, integrated system of hardware and software which is in contrast with the approach of most other technology firms. The case ends with a forward-looking section, and by reiterating Apple's strategic challenges by 2012.

Why Apple?

There is always a need for good strategy cases, which cover essential concepts such as industry analysis, alignment, competitive advantage, leadership and innovation. We chose Apple Inc for several reasons: its impact on rewriting the rules of the game in several sectors, the history of the company involves substantial reversal of fortunes which makes it instructive to discuss, the influence of leadership in Apple’s direction and functioning is apparent, and finally it helps that everyone is familiar with it.

Navigating the sea of information

Apple

We were fortunate in that there is a huge body of published information on Apple, including books by former employees which give an insider’s view of how Apple functions. This enabled us to go beyond the usual constraints of published information to gain a more detailed view of the company without the need for field research. On the other hand this abundance of material about Apple demanded a careful and selective navigation through a sea of information so that a balance was struck between the various foci of the case.

Teaching the case

The Apple Inc case is versatile; it can be used at various levels of participants (undergraduate, postgraduate or executives), and for a variety of themes or courses (strategy, leadership or innovation). The teaching objectives are to:

  • understand industry structure in an intensely competitive industry and how an organisation might successfully try to negotiate or even shape the intensity of the forces
  • explore the nature of strategic leadership using Steve Jobs’ leadership at Apple Inc as an example
  • discuss what a deeper understanding of how Apple operates can tell us about strategy-as-practice
  • explore the nature of successful innovation and how it might be accomplished
  • engage students in strategic analysis and strategic thinking throughout the case, for example on Apple’s strategic alignment.

Engaging students

Educator comment

Andrew CampbellI use this case on two executive courses at Ashridge: Group Level Strategy and Business Model Innovation. The case works well because Apple is such an incredible story. Executives love to study one of the world’s most popular companies and understand why it has been successful. The case provides an excellent overview with enough detail for participants to engage in the classroom.
Andrew Campbell, Director, Ashridge Strategic Management Centre, UK

The case presents strategic dilemmas that have no easy answers. This engages students and creates robust debate with different sections of the class taking opposing views on the dilemmas posed. Combined with students’ familiarity with the company and the industries it is involved in, and the fact that many will own Apple products and have emotional connections to the company, this case creates lively discussion in the classroom.

Advice for case writers

Our key advice to fellow case writers is to write a high quality teaching note since this influences the extent to which your case is adopted by other educators.

Secondly, it is helpful to update cases periodically to ensure they remain relevant. Given the fast moving nature of the technology and consumer electronics industries we updated the Apple case after 3 years; in this context the change of leadership was an important milestone. The teaching objectives and overall structure of the case did not change substantially.

Thirdly, choose a case that involves dilemmas where there are no easy answers, and pose these dilemmas in the narrative directly or indirectly; this ensures robust debate and engagement in the classroom.

Finally, keeping a balance between depth and breadth is important: include enough breadth of information to make an interesting and versatile case, as well as adequate depth of information to enable a good analysis.

Case details

Strategic Leadership and Innovation at Apple Inc
Loizos Heracleous and Angeliki Papachroni
Warwick Business School
Ref 309-038-1
Also available:
Teaching note

Ref 311-256-8

This case was the overall winner at the ecch Case Awards 2013.

About the authors

Loizos Heracleous is Professor of Strategy and Pro Dean (Strategy) at Warwick Business School, UK. Loizos.Heracleous@wbs.ac.uk

Angeliki Papachroni is a PhD Candidate at Warwick Business School, UK.
e A.Papachroni@warwick.ac.uk

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