Steve Jobs Didn’t Invent Creativity, He Nurtured It

Former Apple CEO Steve Jobs delivers a keynote address at the Macworld Expo.

For someone with lousy people skills, Steve Jobs knew how to bring out the best in them, particularly on the creative side. If you were especially creative, he gave you a ‘safe space’ where you did the unthinkable, you were allowed to make mistakes. And he would let you keep on making them until you got it right. The results speak for themselves.

While he was alive, I had the chance to hear how he turned a small, secondary computer company into a global creative powerhouse. He told me, “you will meet three types of people in your career” and then Jobs illustrated a simple algorithm anyone can follow:

“Gather 10 smart people into a room and one or two will be creative, two are great at solving problems, the rest are critics. Keep the creatives away from the critics.”

Time after time, he confounded his competitors with products that set the customer’s imagination on fire. But if you recall the early days of the iPhone? Critics bombarded it with a hundred different reasons why it would fail. And it nearly did, but that was in the lab where it didn’t count. He knew when the time was right, the critics’ would have their day, but until then it was still time to be creating.

Here are the rules Jobs lived by as he found how to blend technology and design in ways no one had imagined. Here’s how he did it.

Nurture the creatives. Jobs carefully guarded those few people in the organization who, like himself, possessed an unerring creative skill, and he nurtured them and their ideas. He believed exposing an early stage product to critics too early means they kill it with safe sounding but boring modifications (which if made later might actually be useful).

Let the problem solvers go wild. Once a product was ready for testing, he kept it hidden like one of those vaunted Apple secret missions, and only allowed what he called problem solvers into the room. They are the equivalent of product therapists, the kind who give the creatives a chance to amend product flaws but not offend their sensibility.

Jobs knew the critics were not the first but the final stage of market adoption.

Then throw it to the critics. Finally, once the problems were solved, he would let the rest of us in, the type that get a kick out of tearing things apart. Jobs felt if you brought them in at the right time, critics would help toughen an idea (and the team).

Adios the suits. The key to driving corporate creativity is to make sure the process flows in that order — creative, problem solvers, critics — with strong boundaries at each step. His warning was don’t bring in the critics too early; they are nice people but they can be idea killers.