Collaboration at Apple

The late Steve Jobs seemed to fit the classic stereotype of the creative genius. A college dropout who invented the first personal computer in his garage. The man who stood up to IBM’s boring corporate PC (with the famous 1984 Superbowl commercial). The man who was kicked out of Apple, which promptly started to fail, and then who returned to again lead the company to success.

Jobs deserves a lot of credit for being an effective corporate leader. But he’s not a lone genius. Like all lone genius stories, this one is a myth. Back in 2009, I blogged about the important role played by the design team at Apple, led by Jonathan Ives. And earlier this month, in an interview in the London Evening Standard, Ives confirmed the central role of collaboration at Apple:

The way we work at Apple is that the complexity of these products really makes it critical to work collaboratively, with different areas of expertise. I think that’s one of the things about my job I enjoy the most. I work with silicon designers, electronic and mechanical engineers, and I think you would struggle to determine who does what when we get together. We’re located together, we share the same goal, have exactly the same preoccupation with making great products.

One of the other things that enables this is that we’ve been doing this together for many years – there is a collective confidence when you are facing a seemingly insurmoutable challenge, and there were multiple times on the iPhone or ipad where we have to think ‘will this work’ we simply didn’t have points of reference.

Architects of Group Genius

I’ve recently been in touch with an Italian architecture firm called “Architects of Group Genius”…I was intrigued by their name, because my book’s title is Group Genius.  If you visit their web site, you’ll see that they design spaces to foster maximum collaboration and innovation.  As they say, “Innovation, Change, Learning and Collaboration, and the blurred boundaries between them, underlie all the work we do.”

My contact there is Maurizio Travaglini, and today I received in the mail a customized Moleskine notebook with KRE-AT09 embossed on the front.  The notebook remains mostly empty but has a few quotations printed inside, including this one from my book:

We’re drawn to the image of the lone genius whose mystical moment of insight changes the world. But the lone genius is a myth; instead, it’s group genius that generates breakthrough innovation. When we collaborate, creativity unfolds across people; the sparks fly faster, and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Keep up the good work, Architectz, and I wish you the best in 2009!

Apple Without Steve Jobs

I’ve lost track of how many cover stories I’ve read about Steve Jobs’ mysterious illness and his leave of absence from Apple.  The announcement came on Wednesday, and right after the stock markets opened on Thursday morning Apple shares were down 5.7 percent.  Shares recovered Thursday afternoon, but as I write this (Friday Jan. 16th) shares are back down to 80.73.  New York Times reporter Joe Nocera, who has written more than once about his private off-the-record conversation with Jobs last summer, yesterday argued that the time is overdue for Apple and Jobs to tell all (read it here). Also yesterday, Brad Stones wrote in the New York Times “Can Apple Fill the Void?”

A solitary, genius individual, being immortalized as the creative genius responsible for a company’s success. Readers of this blog know what I think about stories like this: they’re always a myth.  Innovation never comes from one person’s genius, and that’s not the way it happened at Apple, either.

It’s well established in the history of computer technology that Steve Jobs did not invent any of the technologies that make Apple products famous.  The Apple II was not the first personal computer.  The MacIntosh was not the first windows-and-mouse computer.  The iPod was not the first portable MP3 player.  And the iPhone was not the first Internet-enabled PDA (I love my iPhone but I had almost all of the same features three years earlier on my Palm Treo).

What distinguishes Apple products is not their technical innovations, but their superior design and their focus on the user experience.  (I’d never want to give up my iPhone and go back to my old Treo!)  People say Jobs was responsible for the emphasis on design at Apple.  But Silicon Valley has been a hotbed of design thinking for decades.  IDEO (and its current CEO Tim Brown) have been promoting “design thinking” for years.  Stanford created an interdisciplinary design-oriented school known as the d-school.  Is it an accident that a company like Apple, profiting on these same philosophies, happens to exist down the street from IDEO and Stanford?  I don’t think so.

There are good reasons, however, for a company like Apple to propagate the myth of a legendary and gifted leader. The same thing happens in big science laboratories, where the assembled postdocs and graduate students have a vested interest in the reputation of the professor that they work for (you can read about this research in my 2006 book Explaining Creativity).  Thomas Edison created the public image of a genius inventor largely for publicity and marketing purposes (historians have known for years that Edison didn’t invent, it was the inventors that he hired who did the inventing).

Steve Jobs is important for Apple in the same way that any gifted and talented CEO is important for their company.  I believe his skills are a uniquely good match for what Apple has needed in recent years.  But his importance is not due to his creativity, or to his unique gift for design.  Apple’s creativity and its design sense are collective, organizational qualities and don’t reside in any one person. Any time you hear someone telling a story about an indispensable genius, you should get suspicious, and start looking for the real story.

Check out my other blog posts about Apple by searching for “Apple” at the upper right of this screen.

The Architecture of Solitude

The big news this week is that my department has moved to a new building on our campus. If you have read my book GROUP GENIUS, you know that I have quite a bit to say about building architecture and office design (for example, see my post “The building that threw up on itself”). What kinds of offices foster creativity and collaboration? They are offices that support flexible work arrangements and frequent spontaneous reconfigurations, of people, furniture, walls, and cubicles. In innovative organizations, you find a blend of solo work, work in pairs, and collaborative teams. But most of today’s offices are designed to support only one kind of work: solitary work, alone in an office (or a cubicle). In innovative organizations, people are always moving around, bumping unexpectedly into others, and stopping for a few minutes to chat. Offices that support these natural connections have chairs and tables in the hallways or near the stairways, to make such conversations easier.

Space for solitary work
Space for solitary work

But there’s a problem. In a typical organization, everyone wants a private office. A bigger office is even better. And once the architects have finished giving everyone what they want–a nice private office–there’s no room left over for anything else other than halls and stairways to take them from the front door to their office. And that’s exactly what’s happened in my new building. I love my own office, and I’m sure everyone else does, too.

Space for collaboration
Space for collaboration

But there are no spaces to foster collaboration–no nooks in the hallways, no reconfigurable furniture or walls. We have a lounge with the coffee machine and frig, which is nice; and another function room which is very nice (but I wonder if it will be locked and require administrative approval to use?). But these spaces do not support spontaneous conversation and collaboration.

I have often said that university bureaucracies don’t look anything like the most innovative organizations. And when you walk inside most any university office building, you’ll see this right away: when you look down a long corridor and see a row of office doors running down each side. The challenge is: How can we convince everyone–employees, managers, and architects–to change their expectations and see the benefits of a new office design paradigm?

(Note: both photos in this post were taken while I was standing in the same spot, at the head of our new office hallway.)