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By Leo Boudreau

Leo Boudreau

I have just finished reading the Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson. First, I recommend this book to everyone.  Isaacson has an ability to fully develop his topics and the book allows us to learn about Jobs and his approach to innovation and business. It is an interesting exploration of an iconic company and the genius that led it.

"Steve Jobs" By Walter Isaacson

Steve Jobs presents a particular conundrum for Synecticsworld. He may be the most creative and innovative person of our lifetimes. He founded and led Apple, a company that has become synonymous with breakthrough products. He led Pixar to incredible success by redefining what an animated film should be. Jobs has redefined industries—music, telephone, computer, film. If you asked people to name the most creative person they could think of, I would guess that Jobs would be the number one response.

And yet he accomplished this success using a management approach that is a complete contradiction of what the Synectics Body of Knowledge would recommend. He dominated the creativity process at Apple and people that worked with him were often fearful. He told people that they were terrible and their ideas were stupid. According to Isaacson, “His Zen awareness was not accompanied by an excess of calm, peace of mind or interpersonal mellowness, he could stun an unsuspecting victim with an emotional towel-snap, perfectly aimed.” He was an intellectual bully, so secure in his ability and vision that he was not concerned with the feelings of others. When you read the things that Jobs says about Bill Gates and Microsoft (a not insignificant force in our lives over the past 30 years), you get a sense for the confidence and arrogance that drove Jobs and ultimately Apple.

You have to give genius its place in the innovation process.  As we have seen repeatedly throughout history, from Franklin to Edison to Jobs, there is no substitute for genius. The power of their creativity and intelligence, the drive to turn their imagination into reality, can not be duplicated. It does not matter how they interact with others, how they manage, or what barriers are placed in their way, they will make their idea a reality. In their absence though, what is the glue that holds the organization and vision together?

An honest appraisal would suggest that most of us do not have that spark of genius that allows us to follow that path. Most of us benefit from the collaboration of a team. We benefit from a supportive environment where we feel valued and where we feel that we are making a contribution. For most individuals and organizations the genius model is not an option, and we need to rely on another process to allow for innovation to take place.

Apple is in for a major culture shock as they transition from a process dependent upon one man’s genius to a model where empowerment of the individual will become essential. To continue to produce innovative results at Jobs’ level of world class performance, they will need to adopt an operational model that will harness the liberation of their full team and utilize that model to solve their complex challenges.

One Comment

  1. Leo, thanks for this perspective. Your article and my recent readings have me thinking about my own experiences at Apple 1990-1993, long before joining Synecticsworld.

    Although I was there during the John Scully years, there was still a deep belief in “change the world” mantra. I was fortunate to be on product teams where “insanely great” remained the mission even despite pressures from above to fall into the mentality of me-too, lower price, and IBM compatibility. The compatibility push was strong in Apple’s Imaging Group —printers and displays — where I was a Product Marketing Manager for sound-capable displays.

    In my experience those days, the “action” happened at the product team level. People with vision and passion made things happen and the pace was feverish. Every project had a code name. For me, as an imaging product marketing manager, it was “Telecaster” and “Stratocaster” — the first line of sound and voice recognition capable displays/monitors (i.e imbedded stereo speakers and advanced microphone). Multimedia was just catching on and I was going around to the press and sales accounts demoing why you’d want sound on your computer. My counterpart was my engineering project leader. We had each other’s back. Our “Telecaster (14″) and Stratocaster (17”) display teams were made up of audio, video, and industrial design gurus and we pulled off some ground breaking stuff like putting stereo speakers in the bezel while preventing the CRT from vibrating from the sound— no small feat. It was one of the first displays controlled by software versus just being a piece of hardware you plug in.

    I believe that since the vision and creative genius wasn’t happening at the top in John Scully, others lower down carried the torch even though they were sometimes seen as renegades. In the imaging group, two camps were emerging — the “insanely great” differentiation disciples on the one hand, and the followers of “low cost/low end performance parity” on the other. “Telecaster” was a product of the former. The latter was epitomized by “Luigi” — a 14′ display we essentially had built in China with no design differentiation and then on which we slapped an Apple logo. I can’t imagine that happening today!!!

    Within a few years Apple was in the dumps. I had moved back east and was running the kids software start-up team at Hasbro Interactive (one of the reasons you want sound on your computer!), and I remember having to make a difficult call to not create MAC versions of our latest Tonka Construction or Monopoly CD-ROM games.

    It’s not just that the creative visionary at Apple was gone. Apple had lost it’s focus on making nothing but “insanely great” products.

    Times have changed. Though Jobs has passed now, I’m hoping the world continues to benefit from that focus on a true differentiation strategy. Perhaps now, with Steve’s passing, a broader group of disciples will both need to and have an opportunity to keep that fire burning.

    These are my own experiences. With the success of the iPad, which I just bought my 78 year old mother, I’m reminded of one more – my first project at Apple, code-named “Sweet Pea”. The concept back in 1989 was a Smart multimedia CD-ROM player with touch screen that would, are you ready, be “interactive”. It would be driven off of a Hypercard-like piece of Apple software called Apple Script. My job as an intern was to help figure out what the possible consumer applications would be. We did focus groups across the country and in them we ran demos using an LP-record size Laser Disc and player hidden behind a drapery. We’d show the quality of the laser disc output and say, “now imagine this was on your 10inch screen, a model of which you are holding in your hand”. As I recall, the models looked like a bulkier version of an iPad. It just took 20 years to finally realize the vision!

    Of course it does start with having a vision, and a passion to see it through. Now, as you point out, Leo, Apple will need to unleash that spirit, that vision, that passion more deeply in the organization of it’s to live the legacy.

    Thanks for indulging this trip down memory lane.

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