Sunday, December 25, 2011

Essential Ideas about Creativity in 2011 (I): Steve Jobs - Perfectionism, Process, and Tweaking

One of the persistent themes of writing about creativity and creative leadership in 2011 has been that creativity is less about generating new and original notions, product or services and more about tweaking or associating existing ones in unfamiliar ways. That theme isn't entirely new itself, of course, but it runs against a fairly common conception of creativity as primarily being about novelty or originality. More unsettling to some is that the theme undercuts a kind of romance with creativity as the enchanted purview of a select group of individuals using their special gifts to produce momentous, paradigm-shifting breakthroughs. Instead, the values identified by various commentators and researchers as essential to creative success are keen observation, associational thinking, and dogged persistence in building processes that implement innovation.

This theme rose to prominence in various ways during the past year. In this post, I comment on how perfectionism and the tweaking of processes of innovation were highlighted in writings about Steve Jobs and Apple. In a future post, I'll cite several other recent writings that similarly focus on the promise of more efficient associating, re-working and even copying of existing ideas and products -- creatively.

The news story of the year in creative industries and leadership was the death of Steve Jobs. Yet even before his passing in early October, the practices that he and Apple employed so successfully were being closely parsed by analysts. Among many conclusions, two stand out. The first is evident throughout Walter Isaacson's masterful biography of Jobs, which tracks in often minute detail the CEO's obsessive control over product development even as Apple's ranks swelled over the last decade to tens of thousands of employees, many of them highly and often singularly skilled ( But it is even more apparent in Adam Lashinsky's controversial piece on the company's inner workings from the May 23 issue of Fortune, was Jobs' obsessive attention to detail (

This perfectionism was often exercised through a nearly dictatorial management style. All major decisions, and many minor ones, were made at Apple by Jobs himself and failures of underlings were greeted by thunderous, even disdainful critique by the CEO. In an era when quick, cheap, and smart failure is championed and the inherent messiness of creativity is recognized across creative industries and beyond, such a style is striking in its incongruousness -- and often left for us to explain away as an unavoidable by-product of Jobs' genius.

For leaders of creative industries, however, it was another journalistic piece, by Malcolm Gladwell, that spoke more directly to Jobs' success as an entrepreneurial virtuouso. Running in the May 16 issue of The New Yorker, "Creation Myth" celebrated Jobs as a second- or even third-mover whose true gift was envisioning how to apply or re-work existing technologies in unprecedented ways ( In other words, if one accepts that innovation, to be successful, must begin with ideation and completed with implementation, Jobs was an implementer nonpareil. While this begs the question of whether the associational thinking or insightful flash constituting implementation is itself importantly idea-driven, the argument positions Jobs less as a techno-wizard and more as a transcendant marketer. Citing the key example of the Apple co-founder's popularization of the mouse and graphical user interface following his visit to Xerox PARC, where he first observed prototypes for both, Gladwell ultimately holds "the truth of innovation" as occurring in the rough-and-tumble of business rather than the "messy world of creativity" in the research lab.

Months later, in his review of Isaacson's biography of Jobs that doubled as a obituary, Gladwell would put a finer point on his remarks about innovation by calling Jobs, with admiration, "The Tweaker" ( "The visionary starts with a clean sheet of paper, and re-imagines the world. The tweaker inherits things as they are, and has to push and pull them toward some more nearly perfect solution." Gladwell's next sentence makes his point unmistakably: "That is not a lesser task." Almost certainly not, but for many it still seems out of sorts with the romantic, world-changing image of the creative genius re-imagining the new through the power of his will.

Such a characterization of Jobs, both before and after his death, hardly diminished the veneration of the man or celebration of all he accomplished. Yet more interesting, perhaps, is the question of how the emphasis on perfectionism, tweaking, and implementing is relevant to the rest of us and to our understanding of the creative processes and creative leadership beyond Apple. More on that to come.

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