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Steve Jobs: Adios The Critics

April 11, 2017

Any sufficiently advanced technology at the time of inception is indistinguishable from magic. — Arthur C. Clark

Steve Jobs didn’t invent the art of corporate creativity, he perfected it. He also knew something most CEOs rarely understand: creative types don't react well to due diligence before its time. 

Jobs told everyone within hearing range, “you will meet three types of people in your career.” Jobs translated this into a simple paradigm:

“Gather ten smart people into a conference room and two will be creative, two are great at solving problems, the rest are critics.”

That led him to rightly conclude after much trial and error in his early Apple days, one simple act will inspire extraordinary creativity inside the organization: compartmentalize your creative team.

We are all familiar with what happens when you don’t.

You have such a cool idea. Of course, you’ve been up all night and there hasn’t been time to check out the pros and cons. By the way, you’re the creative guy in this story if you haven’t figured that out. So you invite everyone to a meeting because by nature you are inclusive and you naively assume everyone wants to hear about a great idea in its infancy. You lay out the early stage notion of the idea. It’s there for everyone to see. It’s so clear, right?

Bad move.

As you finish your presentation, the guy at the head of the table says, “nice idea, but… (there is always a ‘but’) I think Google is going to crush you (as if they even know who this company is). You better take this up with product management and marketing, then socialize it within the team first. We want to start a revolution here not get into a losing battle. ”

Start a revolution, right? That guy is as wise to revolutions as Louis the XVI.

Now you’re no longer a creative or as Steve Jobs would call it, a maker, but a corporate chess player, and you’ve just heard the business equivalent of checkmate. You got stomped and your idea goes with you. Unfair you say?

In business, we call creators by another name, founders. It is axiomatic. Creativity is the most powerful economic force known to mankind. But the process isn’t always neat and predictable.

The argument goes that creatives are impractical and “suits” have to rein them in. Some believe antagonism between the two produces stronger products. That is like saying you need a Prussian general to bring up unruly children.

The truth is both attributes are useful — fanciful creativity and the spreadsheet logic of the quants. To harmonize these warring forces you don’t actually have to get rid of the suits. But you might want to take a page out of Jobs’ book and move them to another room.

Apple headquarters, Cupertino, CA

Apple’s circular campus headquarters in Cupertino, nicknamed the ‘spaceship’, has one door that even Steve Jobs could not enter without permission.

It is the room where design happens. It goes by another name as well, innovation.

Don’t feel too bad for Jobs and his successor, Tim Cook, who called it ‘the innovation center’ when he was interviewed by CBS. The vast majority of Apple employees are intentionally prevented from entering into the company’s creative labyrinth, officially known as Design Lab, run by famed designer, Jony Ive. Members of the executive team also discover their badges are no good here.

Here is some stunningly insightful commentary by Jobs on his successor, John Sculley, and why Apple nearly fell apart during that phase, only to reach the highest pinnacle of business enterprise success once Jobs returned. (To be fair, Sculley was a great manager in a disruptive period in Apple’s history).

At Apple, there will no tinkering by non-creatives before their time. That is because nobody understood the way creativity drives the bottom line of a business like Steve Jobs.

Time after time, he confounded his competitors with products that set the customer’s imagination on fire. But do you remember how at first the critics snubbed their noses at the iPhone? What did Jobs know that they didn’t? Principally, that exposing an early stage product — or company — to the critics too early means it won’t succeed. Instead, he would look for problem solvers, the equivalent of product therapists, to give the creatives a chance to amend product flaws. Jobs knew the critics were not the first but the final stage of market adaptation

Keep a vigilant guard over the creatives

Steve Jobs placed Mac team signatures as an artist signs their painting

In driving Apple where no tech company has gone before, Jobs carefully guarded those few people in the organization who, like himself, possessed an unerring creative skill, and he nurtured them and their ideas.

Let the problem solvers loose

Then he looked to a larger but still select group of problem solvers who enjoy working out the kinks in new products.

Then throw it to the critics

Finally, the rest of us, that faceless class of critics that get a kick out of tearing things apart, are brought in to rant and rave. Sort of the corporate version of a political protest. Jobs would let them go to work to toughen the idea (and the team) once it passed through the creative and problem-solving doors.

Adios the suits

The key to driving corporate creativity is to make sure the process flows in that order with strong boundaries at each step. Don’t bring in the critics too early; they are nice people but they can also be idea killers.


Author’s Bio

Jeff Cunningham is a global leadership advocate, which he calls the most valuable natural resource in the world.

He is a Professor at ASU’s Thunderbird School of Global Management and was the former publisher of Forbes Magazine, an internet CEO and venture capital partner.

He is a chronicler of iconic leaders. His articles are posted to LinkedIn and Medium via TheArtofLeaders.com. He also has a YouTube interview series, Iconic Voices, with mega moguls like Warren Buffett to Jeff Immelt at IconicVoices.TV.

His career experience includes publisher of Forbes Magazine; founder of Directorship Magazine; CEO of Zip2 (founded by Elon Musk), Myway.com, and CareerTrack.com; venture partner with Schroders. He serves as a trustee of the McCain Institute and previously as a trustee of CSIS and Middle East Institute, and as an advisor to the Nobel Peace Prize Committee.

He has also been a board director of 10 public companies.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Thunderbird School of Global Management or Arizona State University as a whole.