The Tao of Innovation

Insights for the modern business samurai

Unleashing Your Inner Steve Jobs Part 1

Here's how to innovate at a higher level by unleashing your inner Steve Jobs!

Here are ten tips aimed at helping you learn how to innovate at a higher level by unleashing your inner Steve Jobs – that is, to figure out how to create the iPhone or iPad for your particular industry... a product so compelling it takes the market by storm and wins you rabid and fanatical fans. Now, the first thing to understand is that unleashing your inner Steve Jobs doesn't mean you should drop LSD and buy a black turtleneck and start spouting Jobs-ian quotes at work. Unleashing your "inner Steve Jobs" requires that you defy convention, including the embedded lingo and process of corporate innovation itself, which has definitely become the accepted convention.

If you copy anyone else's innovation process-including Jobs'-you've already failed. Therefore, it's really about finding your own way to a new kind of creativity that is all your own. Like Jobs said in his now famous Stanford Commencement Address: "Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of other's opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition."

To take innovation to the next level-simply being inventive is insufficient. You must understand the process of inventing, and refine it exhaustively. When you do, you'll find that innovation is many things-it's an art, it's a science, it's a vision, and it's a lifestyle. As an art, it is similar to any medium of creative expression-something you can perfect only after a lifetime of serious study. Most people only scratch the surface of what innovation really means, most managers only give it lip service. As a science, it is based on learning how to see the reality of things instead of filtering reality to see it some other way; and so, innovation needs to be measurable to be a science and not superstition. Innovation is also a new way of seeing things, a way of seeing that reveals that life is a vision and every frustration hides a hope that positive change is always possible.

Tip No. 1: Innovation Isn't Just a Passion, It's a Priesthood

Let's get down to it. There are three reasons your company is probably not as innovative as you'd like for it to be, and the primary reason is simply because you are running it like a business, and not like your life depended on it. Did you ever see the movie, "Walk the Line," about the life of the musician Johnny Cash? There was one scene where Cash is auditioning for Sam Phillips, a record producer, and sings the same tired gospel song that everyone else is singing. When Sam stops him early and dismisses him, Cash responds with, "Hey, you didn't let us bring it home." To which Sam responds:

Bring... bring it home? All right, let's bring it home. If you was hit by a truck and you was lying out there in that gutter dying, and you had time to sing one song. Huh? One song that people would remember before you're dirt. One song that would let God know how you felt about your time here on Earth. One song that would sum you up. You tellin' me that's the song you'd sing? That same Jimmy Davis tune we hear on the radio all day, about your peace within, and how it's real, and how you're gonna shout it? Or... would you sing somethin' different. Somethin' real. Somethin' you felt. Cause I'm telling you right now, that's the kind of song people want to hear. That's the kind of song that truly saves people. It ain't got nothin to do with believin' in God, Mr. Cash. It has to do with believin' in yourself.

Most people who innovate simply do it as part of their job, or try to look innovative when innovation season comes around and the CEO launches yet another contest using yet another idea catcher app. Most people don't innovate with their entire heart and soul, like their lives depended on it. Most people don't realize that innovation isn't just a passion, it's a priesthood.

If you look at Steve Jobs sitting in his empty house, in a zazen position, it's almost like he's telling us that Apple is his meditation. His koan. His path. There wasn't even room for furniture. He had achieved clarity by maintaining a single pointed focus on his work of creating the future. For Steve Jobs, innovation was his one art, his greatest passion, his enlightenment.

The classic story of innovating as if your life depended on it happened during Apollo 13, when an accident sparked the words, "Houston, we have a problem." Captured in the 1995 movie, the story of the ground crew's race to bring the astronauts home is the perfect demonstration of man's ability to do the impossible when the chips are down. At one point, the crew is challenged to literally put a square peg in a round hole using only the materials available onboard the module. The impossible needed to be accomplished ... and quickly. The flight director Gene Kranz (played by Ed Harris) captures the moment when he gravely intones, "Failure is not an option."

So how does your company innovate? Are people spending more time vying for credit than inventing, and trying to steal each other's ideas, and recycling the same old ideas over and over? Or are they rising above the politics, accessing their inner genius, and innovating like the company's life depends on it?

The second factor is that you must love what you do, with all your heart and soul. Jobs noted to those interested in succeeding, "Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it." So ask yourself, is what you do for a living only for a living, or is it something you truly love with all your heart and soul?

Now, it should be noted that this prescription does not lead to a balanced life over the short term, especially if you have kids to raise and other priorities in life. I'm not saying to not have kids... just that great innovation, like great art, often requires sacrifices. Fortunately, after you get over the hump, there's hope for balancing a work life with a home life that includes some furniture, a soulmate, kids, whatever. It's like becoming a piano virtuoso. When you are perfecting your art, it takes immense focus and training, but once you've developed your skill, you can find balance again. This happened for Jobs, eventually, when he finally turned to designing his personal life.

One way to tell how much of your motivation for success is based on the love of the game, and how much is based on ego or greed, is by figuring out just how much you're into it for the money versus for something else, something more. Steve Jobs said, "I was worth over $1,000,000 when I was 23, and over $10,000,000 when I was 24, and over $100,000,000 when I was 25, and it wasn't that important because I never did it for the money." Sometimes, this profession requires a little soul searching to determine how low you're willing to fall, or how broke you're willing to be, to see how far you'll eventually be able to fly. That's what it takes to see what's really driving you to invent and succeed.

The third factor is that what you do or make has to come from a deep and essential understanding of the human condition. Eric Schmidt of Google wrote an article for BusinessWeek about Steve Jobs: "Steve and I were talking about children one time, and he said the problem with children is that they carry your heart with them. The exact phrase was, ‘It's your heart running around outside your body.' That's a Steve Jobs quote. He had a level of perception about feelings and emotions that was far beyond anything I've met in my entire life." It is only through a deep and almost spiritual perception of the human condition that can help us to develop a product so deep and rich that everyone jumps onto the bandwagon and raves about it, because it recognized and nurtures something fundamental and beautiful about the way human beings are, or relate, or hope to be. These subtle needs and niches are often completely tacit and unarticulated. You could do a year of market surveys and feedback groups without even getting close, because it requires a rare blend of product vision and market perception. Have you already achieved this level of wisdom? If not, what's it going to take to get there?

So answer these three questions and you have your starting point: Can I accept innovation and entrepreneurship as my greatest passion and my central path in life? Is innovation something I truly love to do, at any and every moment of my life? And can I achieve a level of wisdom about the human condition necessary to create something deep and compelling; a wisdom so deep that you are able to design a product or service that nurtures something fundamental and beautiful about the way human beings are, or relate, or hope to be?

That's the first step!

 


Continued in Part II...

Note: This is the second part of series titled, "Unleashing Your Inner Steve Jobs." If you can't wait to read it all, just send me a note and I'll email you a PDF of the entire series.

Moses Ma, a partner at Next Gen Ventures, is co-author of the forthcoming book Agile Innovation.

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