What Made Apple So Creative?

Steve Jobs inspired creativity by keeping critics away

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.

For someone who was notorious for his lousy people skills, Steve Jobs knew talent when he saw it. His primary goal was to hold onto what I will call ‘extreme talent’ (he paid everyone princely sums) and if you were creative, he did something most other CEOs don’t.

He gave you the room and the rope to do your best work. The results speak for themselves.

While he was alive, I had the chance to hear him on how to make a company into a creative powerhouse. He told the group, “you will meet three types of people in your career.” Then Jobs gave us a simple algorithm:

“Gather ten smart people into a conference room and two will be creative, two are great at solving problems, the rest are critics. Keep the creatives far away from the critics until they’re ready.”

Time after time, he confounded his competitors with products that set the customer’s imagination on fire. But do recall the early days of the iPhone? The critics bombarded it with a hundred different reasons why it would fail.

Fortunately, he didn’t tell the designers. He knew when the time was right, the critics’ would get their day, but for now, it was still time to create stuff.

1) Nurture the creatives

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.

2) Let the problem solvers go wild

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

3) 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 because that made a great idea easier to fix but not to kill.

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.

Keep a vigilant guard over the creatives

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

How he did it.

One simple act of what I will call corporate compassion will inspire extraordinary creativity: compartmentalize your creative team and give them their own space away from intrusion during the creative period of a product lifecycle.

Principally, that exposing an early stage product — or company — to the critics too early means it will never succeed. Either they kill it outright or they kill it with modifications (which if made later might actually be useful). Instead, Jobs looked around for problem solvers, the equivalent of product therapists, and the kind who understand ‘right brained’ intelligence, to give the creatives a chance to amend product flaws. Jobs knew the critics were not the first but the final stage of market adoption.

Apple headquarters, Cupertino, CA

He gave the creatives the keys, literally

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. He makes it clear that whiteboarding and building great products aren’t the same thing. Jobs recognizes when a ‘suit’ gets too intrusive, it can be a death knell.

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.