Being nice doesn’t drive innovation. As the legacies of Steve Jobs are analyzed and dissected, one of the most important ones is that Steve Jobs did not worry about not being liked – and drew the best out of people. This flies in the face of traditional corporate culture.
Jobs didn’t care about being liked or fear conflict; he cared about building the best company that made the best products.
Corporate America loves “consensus” – it rewards and embraces it. It nurtures it and promotes based on it. But, as Steve Jobs so vividly demonstrated, valuing consensus mutes creativity.The Webster’s online dictionary defines “consensus” as “unanimity” and ‘judgment arrived at by most of those concerned.” But, the magic comes from big game-changing ideas, and those are apt to threaten someone’s turf and are not arrived at by “consensus.”
Consensus breeds mediocrity. It will quickly kill disruptive ideas that lead to the hit record or the new product we didn’t know we couldn’t live without — like the computer or the iPod or the cell phone.
Innovation is disruptive, messy, chaotic, uncontrollable, unpredictable, uncomfortable and full of conflict and discord — all of which are anathma to Corporate America.
The origin of “conflict” is “strike together,” which perfectly illustrates my point that conflict can be the secret process that ignites the blockbuster solution or idea. Conflict can be a great muse.
Jerry Hirshberg of Nissan Design International fame talks about conflict being a great driver of innovation. In his book, The Creative Priority, Hirshberg wrote that “perhaps the most novel and all-encompassing management and interaction process to emerge from prioritizing creativity” was what he called “creative abrasion.” He wrote that “Friction between individuals and groups is typically thought of as something harmful…Creative abrasion recognizes the positive dimensions of friction, the requisite role it plays in making things go. Without it, engines would not work, a crucial source of heat and electricity would be eliminated…Recognizing, marking, and transforming pregnant moments of friction and collision into opportunities for breakthroughs are the work of creative abrasion.”
Even though Jobs didn’t suffer fools “at all” as Jobs’s biographer Walter Isaacson said on CNN recently, he was still beloved. Because of his style, Jobs undoubtedly made enemies, but those who he pushed the hardest were intensely loyal to him because he elicited the best in them. “He made me do things I didn’t know I could do,” Isaacson said many told him.
We have to build cultures that reframe conflict into “creative abrasion” – challenging dogma and assumptions to find new solutions. At the U.S. Naval Academy over a century ago, my great-great uncle came up with methodologies that were different from those he was being taught as a young midshipman. At the time, they accused him of cheating and nearly expelled him. Today, he’s revered as one of the Academy’s stars, and the science building bears his name because he won the Nobel Prize (Michelson, 1907, physics).
For both Jobs and my uncle, it was about the “passion for perfection,” the drive for excellence above all else, even at the risk of not being liked. It was about challenging assumptions. That’s what we need more of to grow the economy.
When they made “Toy Story,” Jobs’ Pixar challenged the assumption that toys cannot talk and do not have feeling. In another PG-13 animated movie, “How to Train Your Dragon,” a small son of the Viking-like ruling family refused to join the population’s consensus that their country’s dragon population was their nemesis. As a result, he transformed his country from one possessed by fear and violence to a thriving “metropolis,” literally.
Steve Jobs challenged his own, his company’s and his country’s assumptions every day, and he deliberately debated his new ideas with smart people who would push back. Jobs was too busy changing the world to focus on being nice. Corporate America needs to learn that lesson too.
Ms.Michelson is CEO of JB Michelson & Associates a communications consultancy and is writing a book on innovation.