The Crazy Ones, the Misfits, the Rebels

No one knew how to effect change better than Steve Jobs. What can public-sector leaders learn from his legacy of disruptive innovation?
by | January 10, 2012 AT 5:00 PM

Like a lot of people, I received Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs for Christmas. Isaacson's storytelling drew me in quickly. I was amazed and repulsed. And like others, I wondered if the Apple co-founder's story might contain lessons for those with similar ambition but working outside of business, in government, the nonprofit sector or even philanthropy. Do government and nonprofit agencies tackling such issues as homelessness or workforce development or child welfare need more people like Steve Jobs?

Certainly Jobs' approach to his work is not a perfect match for the public sector. From a fruit smoothie to a new product design, to Jobs everything was either "the best ever" or "complete garbage." This lack of recognition of the existence of gray areas is rarely possible for public officials who have to balance concurrent priorities such as fairness and efficiency.

Jobs was also criticized for treating people as passive consumers in need of Apple's expert direction. In this way I think his approach diverges from where social innovators should be heading. When fighting poverty or homelessness or any number of social ills, too often we have excluded clients from their own progress, relying instead on professionals' assessments. Instead, we need to lift our expectations for individual potential and responsibility.

Certainly there was an obvious "good" side to Jobs and his legacy. Many have acknowledged the culture and passion he tried to leave behind at Apple and his ability to transform not just a single company but entire industries. I was also struck by Jobs' knack for convincing the rest of us to go along with his vision.

Less clear was whether his "bad" side was simply a necessary tradeoff or the key to bold innovations. Most see Jobs' thorny, belittling, unrelenting, sometimes disloyal and disingenuous approach to people and relationships as a deficit to be avoided. But could it have been the key to his disruptive innovation?

Infusing a culture. After returning to Apple in the late 1990s, Jobs expressed a desire to make the company's creative spirit endure after he was gone. Isaacson does capture a number of Jobs' insights on what makes an innovative culture.

From the beginning, Jobs touted Apple's unique passion for combining technical skills with imagination—a mix that many in government or the nonprofit sector could appreciate. He continually drove new products, even when they might eat into the success of existing offerings. He believed that pursuing great products and services above all else was key, more important than revenue or profits. Further, Jobs was adamant that the different functions within the company, from design to engineering to marketing to manufacturing, were unfailingly coordinated throughout the development of products.

Realizing the future. While Jobs shunned market research and analysis, he did not magically conjure up Apple products. They were developed through an iterative—and sometimes intuitive—process that was rarely straightforward. The process included borrowing ideas liberally from others, combining or modifying existing technologies, attracting incredibly bright people, being in the right place at the right time, and maybe even divine intervention.

Persuading your customers. While many bristled at Jobs' "people don't know what they want until you show it to them" attitude, he knew that Apple needed to expend effort reaching out to people and explaining its vision. He invested much time and attention in marketing and gave it a privileged seat in the development process. Jobs was known for planning brilliant launch events and securing front-page coverage when new products were ready.

"Think Different" was one notable Apple campaign, featuring photos of historical figures known for making change: "Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. ... Because the people who are just crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do." In the context of innovation in services funded in large part by tax dollars, the need to explain change to the public is perhaps even more important—but often neglected.

Leaving bruises. Even the hurtful, narcissistic and unsympathetic side of Jobs' personality has lessons for public and nonprofit sectors. Most people do not enjoy conflict and will avoid it when possible. He would start a negotiation or sales pitch by saying something like, "You guys have no idea what you're doing, you're wasting everyone's time, you're lucky that Apple can help you get it right."

Isaacson concluded: "The nasty edge to his personality was not necessary. It hindered him more than it helped him. But it did, at times, serve a purpose. Polite and velvety leaders, who take care to avoid bruising others, are generally not as effective at forcing change. Dozens of the colleagues whom Jobs most abused ended their litany of horror stories by saying that he got them to do things they never dreamed possible."

The intensity of conflict that Jobs seemed to revel in claimed too heavy a cost on people around him. But after decades of investing billions of dollars into issues like poverty and education with little progress, the public sector need leaders willing and capable to force disruptive change.

Real solutions to intractable public problems are out there. The challenge is what Jobs knew how to do best: forcing change that endures by cutting through bureaucracy, fearlessly facing down opposition and insisting on maximum performance. What will it take for governments—along with their nonprofit and community partners—to do the things they never dreamed possible?