How to respond to new ideas (the Bill Hewlett method)
But in Silicon Valley, where even well-established companies try to retain the friskiness and childlike curiosity of their early days, the willingness to ask “What can go right?” never dwindles. The model in many executives’ minds is Bill Hewlett, cofounder of Hewlett-Packard. During his heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, he developed a famous three-step approach for dealing with engineers who were excited about what they hoped was an amazing breakthrough.
At the start of the process, one chronicler recalled, “Bill immediately put on a hat called ‘enthusiasm.’ He would listen, express excitement where appropriate and appreciation in general, while asking a few rather gentle and not too pointed questions.” Later, Hewlett would revisit the issue, in effect wearing new hats called “inquisition” and “decision.” In those later stages, Hewlett could turn fiercely critical. Shortcomings in either the idea or its champion would be bluntly aired. But the critiques wouldn’t happen until Hewlett had first enjoyed a chance to see what could go right.
As a result, the best ideas (and the most talented engineers) prospered within HP. The duds were culled. Thanks to Hewlett’s willingness to begin with an open-minded look, morale stayed strong, no matter what the outcome. The boss’s overriding message: new ideas and new talent were welcome at HP.
At Apple, founder Steve Jobs is famous for pursuing a similar strategy. Many commentators tend to focus on his fierceness during the middle stage of inquisition. In The Perfect Thing, a book recounting Apple’s development of the iPod music player, author Steven “Levy wrote about “Jobs’s maniacal attention to detail and harsh way of communicating.” In Levy’s words, such barrages “proved incredibly effective in producing products that were many cuts above the clunky efforts of his competition.
Apple insiders say the harangues are only half the story. Daniel Walker, Apple’s former chief talent officer, said what struck him about Jobs was the Apple founder’s willingness to see the best in any idea at the beginning. Jobs’s supposed brilliance in finding the next technological wave ahead of everyone else may actually reflect an unfiltered enthusiasm for everything at first. If only the best ideas and people survived Apple’s internal beat-downs, then only Jobs’s successes would be visible.
There is a powerful benefit to this strategy of opening the doors wide at first, and then getting picky as newcomers reveal their full strengths and limits. It becomes much easier to hire someone intriguing without a fully formed view of what she or he might accomplish in the years ahead. All that matters at the beginning is a willingness to get started.
Excerpt From: Anders, George. “The Rare Find: Spotting Exceptional Talent Before Everyone Else.”