Steve Jobs and the power of association

Online 2010 The Secrets of Steve Jobs

How does Steve Jobs innovate? Through the power of association. As Jobs himself says, “creativity is just connecting things”

The company name “Apple” fell from a tree, literally. When Steve Jobs and co-founder Steve Wozniak formed a partnership to build computers, the then twenty-one-year-old Jobs had dropped out of Reed College in Portland. He returned to Oregon periodically to share ideas with like-minded people in a Zen-influenced commune called the All-One Farm where they grew-you guessed it-apples.

As Wozniak tells the story, “Steve was coming back from a visit to Oregon to a place he called an ‘apple orchard.’ It was actually some kind of commune. Steve suggested a name-Apple Computer . . . We both tried to come up with technical-sounding names that were better, but we couldn’t think of any good ones. Apple was so much better, better than any other name we could think of.”

The story of Steve Jobs and the apple orchard gives us an early glimpse into how Jobs’s mind works. Not everyone can replicate Steve Jobs’s success in the computer industry. But we all can learn to be far more creative than we are today. The question is, how? What can Steve Jobs teach us about innovation?

According to Harvard research, the number one skill that separates innovators from non-creative professionals is “associating”: the ability to successfully connect seemingly unrelated questions, problems, or ideas from different fields. The Harvard research project confirms what Jobs told a reporter fifteen years earlier: “Creativity is just connecting things.”

Here’s what the researchers had to say: When you ask creative people how they did something they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it; they just saw something. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they had thought more about their experiences than other people. A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem.

One reason behind Jobs’s ability to generate idea after idea is that, as the Harvard researchers observe, “he has spent a lifetime exploring new and unrelated things-the art of calligraphy, meditation practices in an Indian ashram, the fine details of a Mercedes-Benz.”

The three business professors who conducted the research for Harvard Business Review, offer an enticing comparison. First, imagine that you have an identical twin, they suggest. Now imagine that you both have the same brains and natural talents and that you both have been assigned the task of creating a new business venture. You have one week to do it. “During that week, you come up with ideas alone in your room. By contrast, your twin (1) talks with 10 people-including an engineer, a musician, a stay-at-home dad, and a designer-about the venture (2) visits three innovative start-ups to observe what they do (3) samples five new products (4) shows a prototype he’s built to five people and (5) asks the question, “What if I tried this?” . . . who do you bet will come up with the more innovative (and viable) idea?”

Steve Jobs could easily play the role of your twin. Jobs is more effective than most people at generating creative ideas because he is skilled at making associations. He doesn’t always know where or how the dots will connect, but he has faith that they will.

A Cuisinart food processor has little in common with a home computer. It’s a consumer appliance that makes your life easier and is found in the home. Other than that, the two products serve completely different functions. If you think the way Steve Jobs does, however, you find inspiration everywhere, even from a common food processor.

If you see old photographs of the Apple I and Apple II computers, you notice that the two look nothing alike. The former was a fully assembled circuit board that contained about sixty chips. It went on sale in July 1976, three months after Jobs and Wozniak agreed to go into business together. The Apple I was sold as a kit, mostly to hobbyists. It would have exasperated and confused “everyday people.” Apple introduced the Apple II one year later, and it was this computer that put the company on the map and launched the long, amazing journey that would turn Jobs into a global icon.

The Apple II was the most popular personal computer of its time: easy to use, with a colour screen, an integrated keyboard, eight internal expansion slots, and a unique plastic case. The story of the case is a classic example of association: in the same way Jobs originally named the company, a connection happened because Steve Jobs decided to look outside the computer industry for inspiration.

While Wozniak was improving the internal circuitry and design of what would become the Apple II, Jobs concentrated on the case, which, in his opinion, had to appeal to non-hobbyists looking for a complete, ready-to-use computer. Otherwise it would not have the mass-market appeal that would be required to make the product, and the company, successful. Jobs envisioned the computer in the home, perhaps the kitchen, where the entire family would enjoy using it. Clearly the Apple II had to have a far more approachable look and feel than any computer existing at the time. It would have to be more like a kitchen appliance and less like something found in a hobbyist’s garage.

“It was clear to me that for every hardware hobbyist who wanted to assemble his own computer, there were a thousand people who couldn’t do that but wanted to mess around with the programming. . . just like I did when I was 10. My dream for the Apple II was to sell the first real packaged computer . . . I got a bug up my rear that I wanted the computer in a plastic case,” Jobs said.

Although an industrial designer, Jerry Manock, was hired to design the computer, he took his instructions from Steve Jobs, who found his inspiration not in an electronics store-but at the department store Macy’s. “He found it in the kitchen section of Macy’s while looking at Cuisinart food processors,” writes Leander Kahney, author of Inside Steve’s Brain. “Here was what the Apple II needed: a nice moulded plastic case with smooth edges, muted colours, and a lightly textured surface.” The moulded case was the spark that Apple II needed to make it one of the most popular personal computers ever manufactured. It also turned Jobs and Wozniak into millionaires many times over. Wozniak invented the Apple II, but Jobs’s creative thinking turned it into an appliance that everyday people would use and enjoy.

In one of the most misinterpreted quotes of Steve Jobs’s career, he said, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” Some critics have cited that quote to support their opinion that Steve Jobs does not have original ideas. But if you read the entire quote you will realize that Jobs was talking about finding inspiration outside of the computer industry-in other words, connecting seemingly unrelated things.

The entire quote reads: “It comes down to trying to expose yourself to the best things that humans have done and then try to bring those things in to what you’re doing. Picasso had a saying. He said, ‘Good artists copy, great artists steal.’ We’ve always been shameless about stealing great ideas. Part of what made the Macintosh great was that the people working on it were musicians, and poets, and artists, and zoologists, and historians who also happened to be the best computer scientists in the world.” When one sees the quote in its entirety, it becomes clear that Jobs is not talking about stealing as much as he’s reinforcing the notion of association, having diverse experiences that kick-start the creative process.

Steve Jobs makes so many associations that Apple continues to innovate in every aspect of its computer designs, right down to the power cord. The AC adapter that plugs an Apple laptop into a wall socket is called MagSafe-it’s a magnet that connects the computer to the power cord. Many computer users have experienced getting a foot caught in the power cord and watching helplessly as the computer topples with a bang to the floor.

For years, Japanese rice cookers had been built with magnetic latches for the sole reason of preventing a spill. When a computer falls to the floor, you might lose a replaceable object; if a boiling rice cooker falls to the floor, the consequences could be irreparable tragedy. When MagSafe was introduced in 2006 for Apple MacBooks, message boards lit up with enthusiastic customers who thought it was one of the coolest, most innovative concepts to come along in a long time. Others dismissed it as an “old” idea, pointing to Japanese rice cookers and deep fryers at Wal-Mart that had the same feature.

It wasn’t a new idea. Apple “stole” the idea from the Japanese. More specifically, Apple made an “association” between two basically unrelated things, rice cookers and computers. Innovation occurred because Apple made an association that none of its competitors had considered.

Extracted from The Innovation Secrets of Steve Jobs: Insanely Different Principles for Breakthrough Success, published by McGraw Hill

By Carmine Gallo

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