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If you want to create a really transformational innovation, you’d better be in an organization that’s designed to support, not merely tolerate, someone as challenging as Steve Jobs. Otherwise forget it.
“No Simon,” I know many of you are thinking, “that’s not how it works these days: Innovation is all about flat structures, empathy, co-creation…” — you know the stuff.
But are you sure? Collegiality may make the process more pleasant and more fun, but that’s a recipe for becoming an innovation also-ran.
And before I get a torrent of success stories to show me how wrong I am — all of those results from “nice” innovation processes — let me specify here that I’m not talking about incremental invention. I’m talking about big, bold, necessary, save-the-world innovations. I struggle to think of any that were engendered by fairness, politeness, and generally getting along with everybody.
Ironically, these days, anybody in charge of that kind of innovation always seems to kick off an initiative with a variation on “We want to be the Apple/ iPod/ iPhone of xxx.” But whenever I hear people invoking the spirit of Apple, it always brings to mind the Irish joke, “Well, if that’s where you want to go, I wouldn’t start from here…”
The reality is that neither Jobs’ uncompromising management style nor the sort of unconventional processes he used at Apple to redefine the music, personal computer, and phones industries would survive long in most organizations today, let alone receive the kind of support that would allow them to thrive. Even those organizations whose core businesses are unwell — think Motorola, the music industry, Sony, or indeed any of Japan’s major electronics groups — don’t seem to be willing to let loose the flux, dissent, and dangerous ideas necessary to the transformational innovation process.
Why? I think the pervasiveness of the nicely-nicely work culture has a lot to do with it. It slows down and obfuscates the transformational innovation process because it creates the expectation that work should be fun and devoid of the difficult situations, demands, and emotions the process creates.
We have a saying in my team (a paraphrase of a slogan most recently used by the Conservative party in the UK): “Yes it hurts. Yes it works!” It means that we realize that the process of getting to the best answer, decision, or solution is painful. It requires a robust constitution and a thick skin. It requires more than a desire to get ahead or make a quick buck or be seen to be doing something. It requires dogged persistence — the perspiration Edison so famously said was 99% of the process.
Edison and Jobs, in fact, have a lot in common. Some of Edison’s less well-known characteristics included insisting on having the final say, ruthlessly taking credit for and ownership of other people’s work, and regularly driving his Menlo Park employees to the breaking point. In other words, he was a challenging personality, albeit an extremely charismatic one. It probably helped that he was the boss.
I’ve been advising organizations on transformational innovation for a decade now, and in my opinion, the lack of a singular, visionary — and frankly autocratic — someone in charge is one of the biggest reasons why transformational initiatives lose focus, seek the lowest common denominator, and ultimately fall short.
Steve Jobs clearly wasn’t the easiest of people to work with. But he was the sort of brilliant, visionary, entrepreneurial individual organizations need, now more than ever.
The real challenge for organizations trying to innovate transformationally is not finding better insights or developing better intellectual property. The real challenge is providing the type of structure, resources, governance, and culture that actually enable the abrasive, original Steve Jobses of the world to do what they’re great at.
And that is a transformation that most modern organizations are seemingly unable to make.