May 15, 2013

A great metaphor for teamwork from Steve Jobs

In the same "lost" Steve Jobs interview I blogged about last week, he shares this anecdote as a metaphor for team work.

"When I was a young kid there was a widowed man who lived up the street. He was in his eighties. He’s a little scary looking. And I got to know him a little bit. I think he may have paid me to mow his lawn.

One day he said to me, “come on into my garage I want to show you something.” And he pulled out this dusty old rock tumbler. It was a motor and a coffee can and a little band between them. And he said, “come on with me.” We went out into the back and we got some rocks. Some regular old ugly rocks. And we put them in the can with a little bit of liquid and little bit of grit powder, and we closed the can up and he turned this motor on and he said, “come back tomorrow.”
And this can was making a racket as the stones went around.
I came back the next day and we opened the can. And we took out these amazingly beautiful polished rocks. The same common stones that had gone in through rubbing against each other like this (clapping his hands), creating a little bit of friction, creating a little bit of noise, had come out these beautiful polished rocks.
That’s always been in my mind my metaphor for a team working really hard on something they’re passionate about. It’s that through the team, through that group of incredibly talented people bumping up against each other, having arguments, having fights sometimes, making some noise, and working together they polish each other and they polish the ideas, and what comes out are these beautiful stones."

I love the story and the metaphor.  It brings the point across much more evocatively than had he simply given his opinion about what makes a high performing team.  This story is memorable, in fact I've already retold it multiple times after hearing Jobs tell it.

His message is also compelling, so often we view conflict in teams as negative, we often have an attitude of "don't confront me and I won't confront you" as we put harmony over performance.  In my experience though, great ideas are often born in spaces of creative tension where, as Steve Jobs put it, "incredibly talented people bump up against each other".  Earlier in the interview he spoke about how diverse his team was, there were artists, poets, historians, zoologists - I can just imagine the "noise" they were making while 'bumping up against each other'.   This is another key learning - don't try to homogenize your team, don't be afraid of diversity.  In complex human systems diversity is an asset, not a liability to be avoided.

An interesting question would be to ask what the water and grit powder represents for your team.  Any thoughts?

2 comments on “A great metaphor for teamwork from Steve Jobs”

  1. >An interesting question would be to ask what the water and grit powder represents for your team. Any thoughts?

    These must be the magical ingredients that made it easier for the rocks to be polished, I'd say, in human interactions, this must be "respect" and "psychological safety" in a work environment.

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