7 Lessons on innovation from the “lost” Steve Jobs interview

young-steve-jobsI may a bit behind the rest of the world, but I only recently came across this video of an interview done with Steve Jobs by Bob Cringely as part of the 1996 PBS documentary  Triumph of the Nerds: The Rise of Accidental Empires.  The footage was presumed lost for several years, but recently a copy resurfaced in someone’s garage.  I found it fascinating to say the least.  The interview was done during the time just before Jobs went back to Apple (in 1996) after being forced to leave the company he founded in 1985.

There are several things that struck me: his charisma, his passion and his unique way of seeing the world.  Especially during the initial part of the interview, where he talks about being a teenager seeing a computer for the first time, his passion is contagious.  There are so many “quotable quotes” that I can mention, and just as many learnings to take away, many of which I think is very relevants, especially for organisations and teams seeking to create an environment conducive to innovation.  Here are 7 ideas that stood out for me:

1. Harness diversity and creative thinking

So often diversity is seen as a detriment – something to “get rid of”.  Steve Jobs spoke passionately about the harnessing diversity and the creativity of the team that helped developed Macintosh.  Yes, this may create management headaches, but surely it’s worth it?

“Part of what made the Macintosh great was that the people working on it were musicians and poets and artists and zoologists and historians, who also happened to be the best computer scientists in the world.  But if it hadn’t been for computer science these people would’ve all been doing amazing things in life in other fields.  And they brought with them, we all brought to this effort a very liberal arts sort-of ‘air’, a very liberal arts attitude that we wanted to pull in the best we saw in these other fields into this field.  I don’t think you’d get that if you were very ‘narrow’.”

2. Intangibles matter

When asked if he would classify himself as a hippy or a nerd, he answered that he was clearly a hippy and that all the people he’d worked with would fall into that category as well.  He then gave this excellent reflection on the hippy movement and the influence that thinking had on Macintosh products:

“To me, the spark of that (the 60’s) was that there was something beyond sort-of what you see everyday.  There is something going on here in life beyond just a job and a family and two cars in the garage and a career.  There is something more going on, there’s another side of the coin that we don’t talk about much and we experience it when there’s gaps; when everything is not ordered and perfect.  When there’s kind-of a gap … you experience this inrush of “something”, and a lot of people have set off throughout history to find out what that was, whether it’s Thoreau or Indian mystics or whatever it might be. And the hippy movement got a little of that – they wanted to find out what that was about, and that life wasn’t about what they saw their parents doing. And off course the pendulum swung a bit too far the other way and and it was crazy.  But there was a germ of something there, and it’s the same thing that causes people to want to be poets in stead of bankers, and I think that’s a wonderful thing.  And I think that same “spirit” can be put into products.  And those products can be manufactured and given to people, and they can sense that spirit.  When you talk to people who use the Macintosh, they love it.  You don’t hear people talking about loving products very often, but you could feel it, there was something really wonderful there”

He mentioned it again in his commentary on Microsoft:

“The only problem with Microsoft is that they just have no taste. They have absolutely no taste, and I don’t mean that in a small way, I mean that in a big way. They don’t think of original ideas and they don’t bring much culture into their product. You say, why is that important? Proportionally spaced fonts come from type-setting and beautiful books, that’s where one gets the idea. If it weren’t for the Mac, they would never have that in their products. So I’m saddened—not by Microsoft’s success, I have no problem with their success. They’ve earned their success, for the most part. I have a problem with the fact that they just make really third-rate products. Their products have no spirit to them. They have no spirit of enlightenment about them. They are very pedestrian. And the sad part is that a lot of customers don’t have a lot of that spirit either. But the way we’re gonna ratchet up our species is to take the best and spread it around everybody so that everybody grows up with better things and starts to understand the subtlety of these better things. And Microsoft’s just McDonald’s.”

3. Being right vs doing the right thing

Too often leaders create environments where mistakes aren’t tolerated and admitting that you’re wrong is a sign of weakness.  Whether Jobs continued with this attitude later on in his life, I don’t know, but it certainly seems a part of his earlier success.

“I don’t really care about being right, I just care about success. You’ll find a lot of people that will tell you I had a very strong opinion, and they presented evidence to the contrary and five minutes later I changed my mind. I don’t mind being wrong, and I’ll admit that I’m wrong a lot. It doesn’t really matter to me too much. What matters to me is that we do the right thing.”

4. Challenging ‘folklore’ 

How often do we find ourselves doing things without having any idea why?  If we do ask why, do we accept “it’s just the way it’s done” as an answer?  Jobs spoke about challenging what he calls “folklore” – things that are done simply because that’s what was done yesterday.

“Throughout the years in business, I found something. I always ask why you do things. The answers you invariably get are, ’That’s just the way it’s done.’ Nobody knows why they do what they do. Nobody thinks about things very deeply in business, that’s what I found.”

5. Craftsmanship and companies being run by the wrong people

Do we think about who gets promoted to leadership positions in our organisations?  Do we measure success in the right way?

“The technology crashed and burned at Xerox. Why? I learned more about this with John Sculley later on. What happens is, John came from Pepsico. And they—at most—would change their product once every 10 years. To them, a new product was a new sized bottle. So if you were a ‘product person’, you couldn’t change the course of that company very much. So, who influences the success at Pepsico? The sales and marketing people. Therefore they were the ones that got promoted, and they were the ones that ran the company. Well, for Pepsico that might have been okay, but it turns out the same thing can happen at technology companies that get monopolies. Like IBM and Xerox. If you were a ‘product person’ at IBM or Xerox: so you make a better copier or better computer. So what? When you have a monopoly market-share, the company’s not any more successful. So the people who make the company more successful are the sales and marketing people, and they end up running the companies. And the ‘product people’ get run out of the decision-making forums. The companies forget how to make great products. The product sensibility and product genius that brought them to this monopolistic position gets rotted out by people running these companies who have no conception of a good product vs. a bad product. They have no conception of the craftsmanship that’s required to take a good idea and turn it into a good product. And they really have no feeling in their hearts about wanting to help the costumers.”

6. Content vs Process

I’ve often seen processes kill innovation and creativity in stead of supporting it.  A famous example is 3M.  Former CEO James McNerney introduced Six Sigma, into the organisation.  For those who don’t know, Six Sigma (or as Dave Snowden calls it Sick Stigma) involves a set of process tools designed to eliminate production defects and wastage, and increase efficiency (often resulting in a lack of effectiveness).  This proved to be a disaster for innovation in 3M.  As Geoff Nicholson, former VP for international technical operations at 3M put it:

“The Six Sigma process killed innovation at 3M. Initially what would happen in 3M with Six Sigma people, they would say they need a five-year business plan for [a new idea]. Come on, we don’t know yet because we don’t know how it works, we don’t know how many customers [will take it up], we haven’t taken it out to the customer yet.”

Jobs had this take on it:

“People get confused; companies get confused. When they start getting bigger, they want to replicate their initial success. And a lot of them think, ‘Well, somehow, there’s some magic in the process of how that success was created.’ So they start to institutionalize process across the company. And before very long, people start to get confused that the process is the content. And that’s ultimately the downfall ofIBM. IBM has the best process people in the world. They just forgot about the content. And that happened a little bit at Apple, too. We had a lot of people who were great at management process. They just didn’t have a clue about the content. In my career, I found that the best people are the ones that really understand the content. And they’re a pain in the butt to manage! But you put up with it because they’re so great at the content. And that’s what makes great products. It’s not process, it’s content.”

7. The emergent process of evolving an great idea into a great product

The recent rise of the Agile movement supports this view.  You need to allow for emergence when developing a new product, especially when it is something that hasn’t been done before.  Iterating development, learning and adapting after each iteration or running multiple small experiments simultaneously is much more effective than working according to a fixed scope and project plan.

One of the things that really hurt Apple was after I left, John Sculley got a very serious disease, and this disease (and I’ve seen other people get it too), it’s the disease of thinking that a really great idea is 90% of the work, and if you just tell all these other people, here’s this great idea then of course they can go off and make it happen.  And the problem with that is that there is just a tremendous amount of craftsmanship in between a great idea and a great product.  And as you evolve that great, idea it changes and grows, it never comes out like it starts because you learn a lot of more as you get into the subtleties of it. And you also find there is tremendous trade-offs that you have to make, I mean there are certain things that you just can’t make electrons do, there are certain things you can’t make plastic do, or glass do.  Or factories do, or robots do and as you get into all these things  … designing a product is  keeping 5000 things in your brain, these concepts, and fitting them all together and kind-of continue to push and fit them together in new and different ways to get what you want.  And every day you discover something new that is a new problem or a new opportunity to fit these things together a little differently.  And it’s that process that is the magic.

I highly recommend spending an hour or so watching the full interview – it really is well worth the time.  I’d love for you to let me know what stood out for you.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m8mttU82V64?rel=0]

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