The Only Safe Spaces At Apple Are Where People Create Things

People who design things are a creative tribe and don’t react well to due diligence by clods from headquarters

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.

He told everyone within hearing range, “you will meet three types of people in your career.” Jobs translated this into a simple paradigm:

“Gather ten smart people into a conference room and two will be creative, two are great at solving problems, the rest are critics.”

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.

What did Jobs know that the rest of us don’t?

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.

Let the problem solvers loose

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

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 after the problems are worked out and the designers have done their best. Now, let the masses have at it.

Sort of the product development version of a protest. Jobs would let the critics 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.

We are all familiar with what happens when this isn’t the guiding philosophy.

You have such a cool idea.

Of course, you’ve been up all night and there hasn’t been time to check out the pros and cons. By the way, you’re the creative one in this story if you haven’t figured that out. So you invite everyone to a meeting because by nature you are inclusive and you naively assume everyone wants to hear about a great idea in its infancy. You lay out your early stage notion. It’s plain for everyone to see even though it’s just a kernel of an idea. It’s so obvious, right?

Bad move.

As you finish your presentation, the guy at the head of the table says, “nice idea, but… (there is always a ‘but’) I think Google is going to crush you (as if they even know who this company is). You better take this up with product management and marketing, then socialize it within the team first.”

Now you’re no longer a creative or as Steve Jobs would call it, a maker of great things, but a corporate chess player, and you’ve just heard the business equivalent of checkmate. You got stomped and your idea goes with you.

It is axiomatic. Creativity is the most powerful economic force known to mankind. But the process isn’t always neat and predictable. That’s where trouble finds its way into the business model because there is a type that just doesn’t understand how messy creativity can be.

The argument goes that creatives are impractical and “suits” have to rein them in. Some believe antagonism between the two produces stronger products. That is like saying you need a Prussian general to bring up unruly children.

The truth is both attributes are useful — fanciful creativity and the spreadsheet logic of the quants. To harmonize these warring forces you don’t actually have to get rid of the suits. But you might want to take a page out of Jobs’ book and move them to another room.

Apple headquarters, Cupertino, CA

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.

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