Friday, January 18, 2013

Negativity and Innovation

            A wellspring of innovation that is often overlooked is the tendency to be disgusted.  As Walter Isaacson describes in his provocative book on Steve Jobs, one of Steve’s most commonly repeated phrases was “This is shit.”  Isaacson notes that Jobs apparently had a unique capacity to be disgusted by a great many of the people and things he came across in life from reporters, to artists, to hotels, to meals and most prominently to technological products.

            But there two sides to the coin as Isaacson explains with an example.  One day Jobs barged into the cubicle of one of Atkinson’s engineers and uttered his usual “This is shit.” As Atkinson recalled, “The guy said, ‘No it’s not, it’s actually the best way,’ and he explained to Steve the engineering trade-offs he’d made.” Jobs backed down. Atkinson taught his team to put Jobs’s words through a translator. “We learned to interpret ‘This is shit’ to actually be a question that means, ‘Tell me why this is the best way to do it.’”

            The simple fact is that those who find what currently exists to be acceptable will never be as motivated to innovate as those who often feel that “This is shit.”  This creates a tricky problem for organizations - which in order to be innovative - need to welcome people who think many of the things currently being done, and the products currently being produced, are "shit."  This is not easy and it is especially difficult for governments.  Bureaucratic organizations are far more susceptible to the mentality that this is the way we do it here.  Of course, if the organization keeps doing it that way, then increases in productivity and associated economic growth are likely to be glacial.  Steve Jobs was so effective in promoting innovation in no small measure because he was perpetually dissatisfied with so much of what he saw.

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