Steve Jobs is used as an example of an innovative leader. Many say it was because he was a genius. Maybe he was, perhaps he wasn’t. There are aspects of his personality and leadership style that could be debated from either side. Still, after reading Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, I saw a few attributes that contributed to Apple being so innovative under his leadership—Attributes that could be replicated and emulated, not by one person, but by another company. With the right corporate structure and values, an environment of innovation can be duplicated. Let’s look at the qualities needed in these two attributes to make this happen.
The corporate structure must either have creatives in positions of higher responsibility or have creatives included in high-level decision-making. Similar to what Tim Cook has done by making Jonny Ive the Chief Design Officer. Jobs was creative, so there wasn’t a gap between the CEO and creative ideas. If the leader isn’t creative, the leader can still surround himself/herself with creative people or allow designers to be a part of higher-level decisions. Designers have traditionally been utilized much later after all the big decisions have been made. They are usually tasked with dressing the project up, increasing usability, and/or facilitating marketing. This is too little, too late. They need to be a part of the ideation and business problem solving early on — solving business problems in innovative ways that a non-creative CEO might not be able to bring to the table.
To implement a corporate structure as described above, the CEO would need to value creativity and the input from designers. When creativity and design thinking is valued by the CEO, it becomes a valued part of the company culture. And when creativity is embedded within the culture, innovative approaches become ingrained in business solutions from the start.
This idea of reducing the gap between creatives and business leaders has been gaining some attention. Harvard Business Review’s article Design Thinking by Tim Brown provides several examples of having designers tackle business problems not normally given to creative staff or even outside consultants. Projects like finding solutions for issues with nursing staff shift changes for hospitals and ways to inspire more people to ride bikes in the large cities of Japan. Because designers have learned to apply design methodology to solve problems, they often arrive at unorthodox and innovative solutions. This is extremely helpful for those who are too close to the situation or have been dealing with an issue too long to see alternative solutions.
Creatives normally present their ideas in the implementation phase — much too late to affect the business decision. Once this happens, they are often seen as being out of touch with business or wanting to spend too much money to make things “cool.” However, when a company closely pairs creatives with business leaders, the more innovative a company will become. Only the CEO or president of a company can determine how well the idea will contribute to the furthering of the company’s purpose, thus making it worth the time, investment, and resources to provide an opportunity to see the idea become a reality.
Jobs kept little distance between himself and other creatives. There is a story in the book Steve Jobs of a young designer, Bas Ording, running into Jobs in Apple’s lobby after not getting a job at Apple. Jobs saw him in the lobby and asked Ording to demo his idea. It was what is now the new dock in OS X. Ording prototyped the ability to magnify the program icons in the dock as the cursor hovered over them. Jobs saw his prototype and responded, “My God!” and immediately hired him.
There’s another story of Jobs using creatives to drive business direction: Jobs killed the launch of the iPhone several times before its official launch because it wasn’t innovative enough. He also was against the initial idea of the App Store for the phone but allowed the team to continue developing it to see if it had merit. We now know the rest of the story for both projects.
Companies that reduce the gap between business leaders and creatives are the most innovative. When a creative idea is determined to further a company’s purpose and provide a future competitive edge or even create a new category—that idea can be worth millions, sometimes billions.