Oct 24, 2010

Innovation Lessons from Steve Jobs



It's been a long time since I've written about innovation as a specific subject (see this post on Reframing, and this one on Organizational Innovation in India )

However, when I came across this Forbes.com - Magazine Article on what makes Steve Jobs such an innovator - it reinforced my belied that that basic skill of an innovator is to see the same things as we see - but with new eyes.

Here's an excerpt from the article.
Psychologists have worked tirelessly trying to figure out what makes innovators different. In one of the most thorough examinations of the subject, Harvard researchers interviewed 3,000 executives over six years, and they found that the No. 1 skill that separated innovators from noncreative professionals was "associating"--having an ability to successfully connect seemingly unrelated questions, problems or ideas from different fields. The three-year Harvard research project confirmed what Jobs had told a reporter 15 years earlier: "Creativity is just connecting things."

Jobs is a classic iconoclast, one who aggressively seeks out, attacks and overthrows conventional ideas. And iconoclasts, especially successful ones, have an "affinity for new experiences," according to the Emory University neuroscientist Gregory Berns.

Jobs sees the same things as other leaders, but he perceives them differently. Perception separates the innovator from the imitator. For example, dozens of people saw the graphical user interface set-up at the Xerox PARC facility in Palo Alto, but it was Jobs who, in 1979, perceived it differently and went on to adopt and adapt the technology for what ultimately became the first Macintosh computer, in 1984.

The key to thinking differently is perceiving things differently. To perceive things differently, you must be exposed to divergent ideas, places and people. This forces your brain to make connections it otherwise might miss. Steve Jobs has done this his entire life. He dropped out of college so he could "drop in" to classes that really interested him, such as calligraphy, whose lessons would come back to him years later when he designed the Mac, the first personal computer with beautiful fonts. Jobs wanted the Apple II to be the first personal computer people used in their homes, so he sought inspiration for it in the kitchen appliance aisle at Macy's. And when he hired musicians, artists, poets and historians on the original Macintosh team, he was again exposing himself to new experiences and novel ways of looking at problems.

Some of his most creative insights have resulted directly from novel experiences either in physical places or among people with whom he chose to associate. For example, when he started the Apple Stores, he purposely avoided hiring someone from the computer industry. Instead he tapped a former Target executive, Ron Johnson. Jobs and Johnson sought ideas from outside the computer industry. They asked themselves, "Who offers the best customer service experience?" The answer: Four Seasons hotels. Walk into an Apple Store. You won't find a cashier, but you will find a "concierge." There's a reason for that.

Does Steve Jobs perceive things differently? Absolutely. Is that a skill unique to him? No. You can learn to be more creative as long as you keep in mind that your brain will fight you every step of the way. By pursuing new experiences and thinking differently about common problems, you are asking your brain to expend energy when its natural role is to conserve as much energy as possible. It's not easy, but by forcing yourself out of your comfort zone, physically and mentally, you will kick-start an improvement of the odds of generating remarkable new ideas that have the potential of transforming your business and your life.