Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Nice or Innovative?

This month my book club read the Steve Jobs biography. Despite the daunting size of the book it was a surprisingly quick and interesting read. It created quite a bit of discussion about whether you need to be an autocratic control freak to create great products or even a great company.

This was a topic picked up in the Harvard Business Review last week in an article entitled "Why You Won't Get Breakthrough Innovation by Being Nice"

The author Simon Rucker argues that if you want to create transformational innovation, you'd better be prepared to support someone as challenging as Steve Jobs. Jobs was well known for being abrasive, taking credit for other people's ideas, and needing to be completely in control. He wasn't what you would describe as an easy person to work for despite what he achieved and the respect people had for him. However, does a company need someone like Jobs to be innovative and successful?

Rucker argues "the pervasiveness of the nicely-nicely work culture ....slows down and obfuscates the transformational innovation process because it creates the expectation that work should be fun and devoid of the difficult situations, demands, and emotions the process creates."

The article has created quite some with people arguing against autocratic leadership for example "innovative organisations need leadership, ... in order to creatively engage their whole workforce in the innovation process. Often very great ideas for new products and processes are locked away in the brains of the workforce, and it is the leaders role to engender a culture of creative knowledge-sharing, problem solving and team working up and down the staff hierarchy to reach those ideas."

Jobs was a control freak and liked to present other people's ideas as his own but what he could do was spot a winning idea and make sure it was supported. There are numerous examples of this in his career. He equally squashed ideas he didn't think would work quickly though not always nicely. He also encouraged people to work together from different divisions, he believed organising companies into divisions with their own P&Ls meant they wouldn't work collaboratively, and he even designed the office so people had to bump into other people whether it was in the cafe area or rest room. I like to think these aspects made Apple successful more so than his tantrums and berating staff publicly for being 'shit'. It seems to me at least that innovating successfully and being nice are not mutually exclusive.