Steve Jobs’s prominence in the collective imagination of what a truly innovative business leader should think, say, and do has only strengthened exponentially after his death. As it often happens in the case of similarly influential, seminal figures, the hard recollection of facts and of “what really happened” gets quickly out-shined by references to memorable, albeit often anecdotal, events in that person’s life. These are the stories that tend to be told again and again until they take on the aura of myths. We love myths, especially when they come with a hero.
Along these lines one could also argue that Jobs’s near-ubiquitous biography has been instrumental in this still ongoing “mythification” process: If you happen to work as a professional in the creative industry, countless conversations these days start with a client, a colleague, or even a friend quoting a passage from the book, and one can come to see this state of things either as a precious conversation starter or as an unavoidable reference to someone whom you’re expected to either praise or criticize.
There’s no denying that the role Jobs has come to play in the field of innovation-at-large is usually associated with the term “genius”–and I largely agree with this value statement. But I’m interested in how Jobs’s example has shaped our perceptions of where innovation comes from. Are innovation and creativity the material of über-talented individuals working in splendid isolation, or are they the result of a team effort, even when well-orchestrated by a conductor?
We’re starting to see a backlash against the idea that today’s innovative businesses need to be structured around a shared vision, cross-disciplinary group collaboration, and a deep understanding of the intended end-users of their products or services
You can see this “pendulum swing” in recent articles, including “Groupthink” by Jonah Lehrer in The New Yorker and “The Rise of the New Groupthink” by Susan Cain in The New York Times. Lehrer takes the position that brainstorming is useless, while Cain posits that the current obsession with collaboration and “groupthink” needs to be rebalanced in light of evidence highlighting the key role that lone and often introverted thinkers and inventors have played in major recent and not-so-recent breakthrough innovations.
So what gives?
Is innovation the result of the prophetic reflections of lone creative geniuses, or instead the fruit of the collaboration of a group of talented contributors working together? Does innovation come pushing out ideas that start as flashes of individual insight, or from taking the time to learn what users want?
I don’t think there is an archetype for the people or processes that foster innovative thinking, or even what type of physical working environment can best support a creative culture. That view of the world is too polarized. In my experience, there is no single specific behavioral trait, methodological approach, or carefully selected set of contextual factors that guarantees success in the ability to think differently and translate that thinking into success in the market.
That said, there is indeed a common trait in the typical way creative thinkers approach challenges: They can comfortably hold opposing thoughts in their heads and get to work. At times, this trait can be misconstrued as “the magic of creativity” and especially in the design field I frown when I hear that label because it reveals a preconception that designers are industrial artists that purely rely on their intuition to give shape to their solutions. Not so.
Successful creative thinkers see opposites and apparently contradicting goals not just as a potential for dissonance, but as an opportunity for dynamic harmony. To paraphrase one of Walt Whitman’s most famous verses “creative thinkers are vast, they contain multitudes.” And to paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, the mark of a truly intelligent person is the ability to still function while holding two, opposing ideas in their head. Creativity is inherently inclusive. And that applies whether the creative thinker, in their heart, is a designer, artist, technologist, or CEO.
Okay, so what now? The truth does not lie in the extremes, and definitely also not in the middle. The truth lies in harnessing the positive tension between the extremes, and fine-tuning it until it resonates with what current technologies can enable and with what intended consumers and end-users are ready to adopt in a given sociocultural economic context.
Bringing an innovative product or service to market involves a multitude of vectors. Imagine them individually stretched amidst the opposing constraints that often define their conceptual and practical boundaries (time to market, development cycles, user experience, technical feasibility, branding, business models, just to name a few). Now imagine all these vectors as taut guitar strings, one alongside the other. Imagine fine-tuning each string so that it’s in harmony with all the other ones when they are strummed together. Imagine this being not a one-off task, but a near-continuous activity that a talented musician needs to constantly perform as he or she is playing, not before.
It’s simply wrong to see brainstorming in opposition to solitary thinking, or user research as antithetical to disruptive innovation. These apparently opposing approaches are actually complementary, and effective innovators already use them as such, picking the right mind-frame and the accompanying tools and methodologies according to the specificities of the challenge at hand.
This holistic way of thinking and working is the trademark of places like the one I happen to be lucky enough to work in.
These are places where the physical working context combines an open-plan with project rooms of various sizes to support small group collaboration or individual focus, with plenty of highly transparent, portable cubicles (which is what most people call “headphones”). They are environments where people can also work from home or wherever they prefer when they’d rather work alone. These places foster the idea that an office isn’t just walls, but can be wherever people live, work, and use the products and services we give shape to.
At someplace such as Frog, a highly collaborative, cross-disciplinary, and multicultural environment is simply a requirement, because of the complexity of the problems we face. In that context, every team member needs a strong individual point of view fueled and sustained by personal passions and deep vertical knowledge. The point is to create associations between the complex world that we’re trying to address, and those slower periods of processing, reflection, and interpretation. So by combining moments of intense, personal immersion with high-intensity collaborative workshops and workgroup, we can generate insights rather than prescribing mechanistic solutions. In that context, we can welcome end-users into the creative process while still expecting team leaders to be advocates of a holistic vision.
The idea that visionary geniuses are best-poised for radical innovation is simply misleading. Maybe Jobs or Steve Wozniak were visionary geniuses working in uninterrupted solitary isolation … when they weren’t busy working crazy-long hours with the rest of their über-talented crews in the cultural cradle of high-tech innovation.
The answer lies in harnessing positive tension. It’s an art that only a group of talented individuals have proven to be capable of mastering.