The visionary debate – tempering Jobs worship

Steve Jobs

One of the first image options WordPress gave me. Image by DonkeyHotey via Flickr

What’s more fun than laughing at Tim Tebow?! Possibly, it is singing the praises of Steve Jobs, Apple’s charismatic, intelligent former CEO.

With the unfortunate passing of Steve Jobs, we have been barraged with a number of gushing descriptions of his work. While there is no doubt that Jobs was at the helm of a wildly successful company that made wildly innovative products, the conventional wisdom has again been understandably tripped up a bit by its own collective perception.

The common understanding of how the creative process works is that Job was personally responsible for dreaming up the concept behind Apple’s successful products. It was as if Jobs had to block out all the influence of those around him to allow his genius to take over.

My question is then why was there so many other talented, highly paid people working at Apple at the same time? Why not have Jobs, the creative genius, and a bunch of people with very specific skill sets to build exactly what Jobs said to build? I can almost see the Private Equity guys’ collective mouth watering – cost cuts anyone?!

The conventional wisdom is influenced by our need to associate people with success or failure. Cultural narratives have an important place in our lives as they allow us to encourage the qualities that our culture deems good, and castigate (Latin root, baby!) those that are deemed harmful. Stories can be helpful as they inspire us – or keep us in line – as long as we don’t take them too literally.

It is actually a myth that Jobs, or any other leader, could lock themselves away and come up with great ideas in a vacuum. Brain, activate endorphins, this one’s gonna be a doozy!

When I was very young, I often wondered why it was such that current car manufacturers could not only continue to build cars – even after those who originally came up with the idea had moved on or died – but even improve upon the original design. The reason, of course, is that the explicit or tacit knowledge that those people possessed gets passed along, and the next generation doesn’t have to start all over again.

They build on the base of knowledge that is already there.

But I can hear the objectors now saying something like “but what about breakthrough innovations, like the original automobile, the internet, or for God’s sake, the iPod!?”

Let’s look at the automobile…someone had to have the idea for the concept to move people around by mechanical means. However, people were already moving around through horse-drawn carriages. Many, many people thought of this concept before Ford Motor Company produced the first Model T. The engine had some advancements, but again, mostly relied on incremental improvements of existing technology. Wheels were 5500 years old.

All of these things and plenty more (yeah, got it that summarizing the production of the first automobile in three sentences has left just a few things out), had to come together through the collaboration of concept designers, engineers, and even marketeers (M-I-C-K-E-Y-M-O-U-S-E!).

The network that came together, activated the creative portions of each others’ brains and a series of obstacles began to crumble. The leader, or organization, brought the problem solvers together, but the key lied in the network. For the same reason that ants can lead each other to new sources of food without saying a word, networks consisting of humans are powerful things.

If a group of intelligent people can effectively harness their collective power, they’ll be much more effective than with one intelligent person creating ideas on their own. Organizations are beginning to understand the need to add to the current tacit knowledge management through more explicit means – even if it only means creating the right environment. The Crowdsourcing phenomenon is gaining traction, although not to the point that my spell check doesn’t think that I’ve invented a word. Prediction markets are beating experts and other traditional ways of forecasting.

So, to take us forward, let’s stop focusing on the randomness of who gets to the top, and start focusing on developing the network.


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