Monday, November 28, 2011

Innovation, creativity, and humanity - what I learned from reading Isaacson's Steve Jobs

Last night, just as my daughter was coming in to say goodnight to me,  I turned the final page on Walter Isaacson's fascinating biography on the late Steve Jobs. My daughter, who is, like me, a big Apple fan, asked me, "So did it change your opinion of him?"

The answer is complex, as it must be for a very complicated man.

There are  many things I admire about Jobs, both as a creative person, and someone who studied business administration  (I hope this becomes required reading for MBA courses).

The first, and perhaps the most important is that Jobs had a fervent belief of the importance of the liberal arts and humanities - as exemplified by the slide at the end of his product presentations showing the intersection of Liberal Arts Street and Technology Street.

"It's in Apple's DNA that technology alone is not enough. We believe that it's technology married with the humanities that yields us the result that makes our heart sing...We think we have the right architecture not just in silicon, but in our organization, to build these kinds of products."
Compare this thinking with that of Tea Party politicians like Florida Governor Rick Scott, who wants to drastically cut funding for higher education in the liberal arts in favor of the "STEM" disciplines. Scott should read Isaacson's book, pronto, in hopes that he might gain some understanding why his approach is moving us back to the past rather than preparing us for the future.

Steve Jobs was a great example of the term "Synthesis" - he drew ideas from different, disperate sources, many outside the field of technology and from them was able to originate a new way of looking at an issue.

Isn't that what we need more of in our society, in business, education, and government? There's so much pressure on kids to focus, focus, focus, so they can get into the "best college" (but is it the "best one for them?) and then get out there and make money. But we need more polymaths -people who can see beyond the balance sheet and profit and loss. People who can draw inspiration from other cultures instead of fearing them, because like it or not, we are a global society and there's no way to turn back the clock, no matter how much some people appear to wish to do so.

One of the most fascinating things for me from a business management perspective was Jobs' unique understanding of how the very culture of a business is shaped by the design of its' headquarters. (p.430-431).

"Despite being a denizen of the digital world, or maybe because he knew all too well its isolating potential, Jobs was a strong believer in face-to-face meetings. 'There's a temptation in our networked age to think that ideas can be developed by email and iChat,' he said. 'That's crazy. Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions. You run into someone, you ask what they're doing, you say 'Wow', and soon you're cooking up all sorts of ideas.'"

The Pixar building, therefore, was designed around one central atrium in order to promote just those kind of serendipitous encounters. The front doors, main stairs, and corridors all led to the atrium, the company cafe and mailboxes were there. It was the hub around which Pixar gravitated. And it worked.

"Steve's theory worked from day one" [John] Lasseter recalled. "I kept running into people I hadn't seen for months. I've never seen a building that promoted collaboration and creativity as well as this one."

But like many geniuses I've read about, Jobs was not an easy man to be around.  He clearly had disordered eating, if not an actual eating disorder. He appeared to exhibit many symptoms of  narcissistic personality disorder. Perhaps the best example of this comes late in the book (p.543). Isaacson is talking about Jobs' "complicated but always loyal" relationship with his wife Laurene Powell, who, early in their marriage, cofounded and launched College Track, an organization that helps disadvantaged kids graduate high school and get into college.

While Jobs paid lipservice to her work: " What she's done with College Track really impresses me," he never actually visited her after school centers.

So here's the woman who has supported him, loved him, looked after him, raised his kids - yet he couldn't even put himself out to visit the centers that are important to her? Sorry, that's husband fail on a grand scale. One of the most poignant parts of the book was an interview Isaacson had with Jobs' middle daughter, Erin, in which she made excuses for her father's inattention to her:

"He does his best to be a father and the CEO of Apple, and he juggles those pretty well...Sometimes I wish I had more of his attention, but I know the work he's doing is very important and I think it's really cool, so I'm fine. I don't really need more attention."
 Erin...for the record - I just want to say that I think YOU are really cool and I think you are very important. I bet you'll do some pretty cool stuff yourself someday.

So in answer to my daughter's question about if reading the book changed my opinion of Jobs - I think it made me respect his ideas and genius more, but him as a person less. Could he have been one without the other?

Isaacson's conclusion is that Jobs could have controlled himself if he wanted to. "When he hurt people, it was not because he was lacking in emotional awareness. Quite the contrary: He could size people up, understand their inner thoughts, and know how to relate to them, cajole them, or hurt them at will."

But on the other hand - even the people who he bullied acknowledge that he pushed them to do things they never thought possible.

My final line to my daughter: " He was a genius and a brilliant businessman, but I wouldn't want him as my husband or my father."

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