The Art of Innovation – Creating Cultures of Possibility
“ If we are going to make things in our lives we might as well make them beautiful”
In my blog Leading Artfully I explore the nexus between leadership, innovation and community through the context of artistic processes. Recent domains I have been writing about include;
- The Art of Touch (June 2011)
- The Art of Impossibility (September 2011)
- The Art of Place- Making (April 2011)
While these domains are clearly relevant to creative artistry, we may question their connections to leadership. That is until we read Walter Isaacson’s wonderfully insightful book on the life and work of Steve Jobs. Jobs’ focus was to bring together creative artistry with technology and this involved a shift from invention to innovation. He was not interested in replication but regeneration. And he worked tirelessly in the service of beauty and collaboration in order to bring to market original and innovative products that would transform the experience of the consumer – and change the world.
In this blog I explore the legacy of Steve Jobs as an artist in showing us how to create cultures of possibility in order to succeed in a complex world.
The Art of Touch
I want tactile experience to set the tone – Steve Jobs
What lies at the heart of the experience of touch, is delight. From his earliest days at Apple, Steve Jobs was obsessed with delighting the customer with the joyful use of the product itself. He loved finely designed and crafted things like Ansel Adams prints and Bosendorfer pianos. He displayed a Bosendorfer hand crafted grand in the main foyer of the Apple offices. This served as a daily reminder that they were not only engineers but designers and craftsman. Jobs wanted to remind employees daily to see their work as art and to carry this aesthetic throughout the flow of all of the phases of the design and manufacturing process.
Jobs had a vision that he wanted to marry together arts and great design that expressed the elegance of human touch – and even romance. What was most important for him was not making money but putting the quest for beauty back into the stream of history and of human consciousness as much as he could.
The ease of use, the simplicity of design, the flow of operation – all these and more lay at the heart of Steve Job’s vision for creating not only functional but artful innovation This went beyond asking what the customer wanted because the customer themselves may not have thought that this was possible. So in place of focus groups, benchmarking and market surveys, his mission was to surprise the customer with innovations that they could not have dreamed possible in advance.
As a musician I love all kinds of music. music. I was accustomed to carrying five pounds of CD’s everywhere I traveled. I could not imagine that one day there might be a device that could carry many times that capacity which I could operate with the ease of touch and toggle lightly with my thumb as I held it in the palm of my hand. The key to creating this interface with the consumer is not strategy, but embodiment.
Communicating through touch invites an empathy with the other so that we can connect with the ‘felt sense of the experience’ itself. The simplicity of design, the ease, flow and intuitive logic of operations, the tactile pleasure and delight of the touch screen – all of these and more invite us to enjoy the natural and intuitive flow of experience itself with the confidence in knowing that each element was true to itself and couldn’t be more or less than what it is. This iterative movement of going over it time and time again in order to reduce complexity to its most essential and simplest form that is at the core of the art of innovation.
The Art of The Impossible
The journey is the reward – Steve Jobs
Most dreams and aspirations that really matter seem impossible to do. For Steve Jobs the journey to making the impossible possible was its own reward. And it worked because they brought the fullness of their gifts to their work and they truly loved what they did.
The idea of cobbling together inventions from many diverse sources and transforming these into ground-breaking innovations and creating in the moment, this is what awakens the human spirit and enables us to tap into something that we often don’t understand and so cannot explain.
Widely acclaimed pianist Keith Jarrett reflecting on his recent improvisational concert last April in Rio on a ‘not perfect piano at all’ said in a recent NPR interview with Guy Fraz;
“It’s never the same… I have no idea, moment to moment, how to prepare for these things, either. What actually happens is so much in the moment, so much of a nanosecond. And I know a lot of people probably are skeptical about whether they really are always improvised. I myself even feel skeptical though I know they were.” (1)
Yet Steve Jobs reminded others that if it does not appear impossible it is not worth doing. The only projects that are truly worthwhile are those that cannot be fulfilled within the span of our own lifetime. For the truly artful innovator they often have no idea if their product will succeed. Too often we settle for incremental steps where replication and invention serve as substitutes for true innovation. We are content to play someone else’s music rather that to truly create something uniquely our own.
The Art of Place- Making
I want to create in that place between where engineers are working in tandem with designers - Steve Jobs
Place is not an object or a thing- it is a power and presence – that can inspire us to achieve what seems impossible to do.
When Keith Jarrett reflected that he did not know how to prepare for a concert he added;
” When I get to the place, I try to absorb the culture that I’m in, listen to the language, think about where I am, and that’s about the only preparation that might be important, it was obvious when I listened to the CD (Rio ECM Records 2011 from his solo concert in Rio De Janeiro) that I was connecting to the culture. It wasn’t Holland, or Germany, or the States, or Japan — it was south of the equator. So that made me free of something, I think.”
Being rooted even temporarily to a place helps us achieve the impossible – it connects us to the ground of our own being and inspiration.
Steve Jobs was a student of place and place making. He believed that the right kind of building can do great things for the culture. The simplicity of design flowed into the informal functionality of his living environment. His most natural environment for innovation was a ‘skunkworks’ separate and apart from the main corporate operations where he could – with the collaboration of a small creative team – produce radically new product innovations.
The Macintosh was created in a modest building known as Texaco Towers several miles from the main offices in Cupertino. And Cupertino for Jobs was itself a place of significance. He describes how he got inspired by the history of El Camino Royal and how the royal road connected all 21 mission churches. He wanted to be a part of this history.
At Pixar they built a huge building around a central atrium that served as a ‘commons’ in that was designed to encourage spontaneous conversation and random encounters. If an environment doesn’t encourage this Jobs believed that you will lose a lot of innovation and magic that is sparked by serendipity.
But what perhaps mattered most to Jobs were the meetings that occurred in the place ‘in between’. Walter Isaacson in his biography of Jobs writes about how his heroes were people who could stand at the intersection of aesthetics and technology. It was building these bridges that Jobs was most passionate about and wanted to do.
Isaacson indicates that from his previous biographies of Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein, the creativity that occurs when the feeling for both humanities and sciences is combined in one strong personality will be key to creating innovative economies in the 21 century.
(To read more about other strong leaders like PepsiCo Chairwoman, Indra Nooyi who work at this nexus between the humanities, business and technology – see my blog Thinking Outside the Building; Leading From the Space Between http://pianoscapes.wordpress.com/2010/12/)
Creating Cultures of Possibility
If there is one common thread that runs through all of Steve Job’s work it is that products come and go. What matters most is creating environments – cultures of possibility – that reward the imagination. Ultimately this is the most important thing. And these environments stand out to the extend that they embrace a language that awakens the imagination. What awakened the imagination at Apple were words like touch and tone, simplicity, intuition and ease, beauty and aesthetics, dreams, aspirations, embracing uncertainty and making the impossible, possible.
The future will bring ideas, careers and possibilities for which we have no language to describe. Steve Jobs was giving us this language. It is the language of the artist. Steve Jobs was an artist and what he gave his voice to will continue to transform our world.
Walter Isaacson Steve Jobs Simon And Schuster (Canada) October 2011
Michael Jones Artful Leadership, Awakening the Commons of the Imagination, Bloomington Indiana Trafford, 2006
Roger Martin, Dean, Rodman School of Business, and University of Toronto: Canada, like Steve Jobs, should zero in on innovation Toronto, Globe and Mail, Report on Business November 21, 2011
Guy Raz in Conversation with pianist Keith Jarrett Keith Jarrett Alone in Rio and Ready to Fail All Things Considered NPR November 14, 2011 http://www.publicbroadcasting.net/…/Keith.Jarrett.Alone.In.Rio.And.Ready…;
About Michael Jones
A leadership speaker, pianist composer and creative facilitator, Michael Jones is widely recognized as a thought leader who integrates creative artistry in his presentations and workshops on personal transformation and organizational learning. He is the author of Artful Leadership and Creating an Imaginative Life and has composed and produced fifteen recordings of solo piano and ensemble work that have been distributed worldwide. You can visit his web site to read other Leading Artfully blogs as well as featured essays, videos and music at www.pianoscapes.com