At the end of January, one of my former Apple colleagues emailed me a ‘surprise’ set of photos relating to the 30th anniversary of the Macintosh. It appeared that Apple had created 10 giant posters displayed at the entrance of its Cupertino HQ to mark the event. From a distance, the posters appear very plain and simply bear the number ‘30’ on them. However, when seen close up, the background and number on each poster are actually formed using the names of every employee that has ever worked at Apple since the Mac was introduced in 1984.
Although I left Apple in 2000, I was rather moved by this. Not just the thoughtfulness of my friend but also the company’s recognition of both present and past employees as part of its team. It reminded me of Apple’s 1997 ‘Think Different’ campaign which led with the poem ‘Here’s to the crazy ones’ and showed images of a range of iconic ideologists and celebrities. The purpose we felt internally was a ‘thank you’ to both customers and employees for being crazy enough to keep believing in the company through its dark days of near bankruptcy (like Steve Jobs of course). However, it was to celebrate the courage and single mindedness of those who remained focused on realising an idea despite an often challenging process. The crazy disruptives.
This led me to think about teams and how disruptive talent may manifest itself in a group. If a whole team of disruptives can work well together, magic can happen. If you’ll forgive the reminiscing, one thing I certainly learned during my days at Apple was that although one person may come up with a great idea, it was the determination and collective strength of a team getting behind that idea that would make it a reality. And good disruptive can be true of teams in any organisation that are highly skilled in a complementary way, highly motivated and fiercely believe in changing things for the better.
Mark Goodridge’s article speaks about getting the organisational environment right to attract, work with and get the best out of disruptive talent where they are needed in the business. It’s important to note up front that different parts of the organisation need different skills and individuals to promote optimum performance. The disruptive ‘crazy’ ones are needed when a significant change is required. An entire team of those who think differently could have the ability to shake things up in a very positive way if the mix of skills and personalities can be understood and optimised as far as possible. Discovering individual strengths, weaknesses and skills are the starting point for getting any team mix right. Once the leader believes the mix of skills is right, for a more ‘disruptive’ team, the environment and the way that team is managed are particularly crucial.
A Culture of Failing and Delivering: When it’s Time to Grow up
In its early years, Apple took a while to grow up. Although creatives need time to think, there was perhaps an imbalance of where and how this happened within the organisation. The organisation faced leadership and business issues during the early 1990’s but Apple may have also behaved as a start-up for too long. I heard the environment described once as ‘a kindergarten without parental control’. It took the company some years to mature and make tougher decisions about which ideas should be backed and delivered. In addition to its leadership issues, during the 1990’s there may have been too many teams exploring ideas and failing to deliver them properly. However, as a young person keen to succeed it was an exciting place to be and the company culture attracted those of a similar mindset. In the days before psychometrics were widely used, discovering team strengths, skills and weaknesses was more trial and error but part of its culture of exploration.
Despite its issues at the time, there were definitely behaviours and ways of working discovered in those days that were helpful. In addition to carrying out ones day job, the organisation actively encouraged employees to experiment and pilot an idea. This was one of the main reasons why so many people were prepared to work such long hours. The culture was such that it was OK to fail as long as you tried really hard. It was a good way of finding out what ones strengths and skills were. If you had an idea, it was expected you’d find a way to pilot it. And as Apple was a matrix organisation, it depended on connecting with, gaining buy in from and collaborating with others who would come aboard to help deliver it. It was highly common to be a member of multiple virtual teams both locally and globally in order to make this happen.
Once clear on the objective, individuals and teams were often ‘self-managed’ because each believed so strongly in the project, enjoyed coaching or mentoring with their skill set, or could see an opportunity somewhere. As it was important to gain buy in for an idea and to ‘win hearts and minds’ (an often used phrase at the time), each individual team member had an intrinsic motivation to realise the overall objective. Each would use a different skill set in a complementary way. The manager’s role was often advisory or that of a coach/mentor rather than someone who would spell out exactly what one had to do. In fact, if someone attempted to lay the law down too firmly it could stifle creative thought and cause a rift – especially if the team were generally working well and believed in what they were doing. The leader or manager may be invited in to help solve a problem or facilitate an idea. An idea would be delivered through networking, getting oneself known within the organisation, collaborating with others outside the usual team and gaining both intellectual and financial support. Individual skills and strengths were recognised and, as there was so much passion amongst employees for the overall company and vision, it was relatively easy to find talented people equally excited to help make something a reality. Because of the matrix, boundaries were very flexible. Despite many ideas burning out after an initial pilot, some became much bigger and could be delivered as best practice ideas elsewhere.
Making a Game-Changing Idea a Reality
In 1993, one such best practice project I worked on was called ‘Software Dispatch’. It was an innovative e-commerce idea from the US Evangelism team that would potentially change the way consumers purchased software. In the days prior to widespread internet use, it was a CD with various software products encrypted into it that would be shipped in the box with every Macintosh and piloted firstly in English speaking markets. Any product could be trialled first then fully ‘unlocked’ by calling a number and providing credit card details. In the UK, three of us were pulled in to develop, test and market the pilot. The idea was unique as it instantly enabled customers to buy a software product from their home or office 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Sound familiar? We were given 9 months funding to make it a success to see what happened. We discovered that, although the idea was great, the market wasn’t quite ready. Most customers at that time were still more familiar with disk drives than CDs and we didn’t have the critical mass of early adopters amongst consumers to make the new concept take off. As Apple had much bigger business issues at the time, the plug was pulled early and the idea shelved. However, there were those with renewed energy and enthusiasm who remained convinced the idea was sound. Several determined iterations later from more positively disruptive teams, the web now enables a much simpler way of conducting e-commerce. Downloading software is now very common-place and the original idea has evolved into iTunes.
Apple has since matured. No longer does the entire organisation act like a start-up although disruptive innovation still has its place. And, as the iphone and its thousands of apps have shown, ideas can be further developed by others to turn around not just the fortunes of an organisation but the way the world works.
Not all ideas realise a success. Few organisations have the luxury of time (or indeed funding) to experiment with random idea generation and piloting. But to change thinking and habits there must be some provision for blue sky thinking and experimentation – where it matters. Some organisational capacity must allow for creativity, collaboration, testing and possible failure. If not, how will we know? The environment must support focused experimentation from those crazy enough to believe there could be a better way and not berate every failure. The risk of course is betting on the right idea. It may not work in the first team but others may be able to build on the idea (e.g. although Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1929, he was unable to make it successful alone. It wasn’t until the 1940’s that Howard Florey and his team took the idea up again and were able to develop, trial and produce it in significant enough quantities for it to benefit human health.)
As discussed in Paolo Moscuzza’s article, identifying disruptive talent is a challenge. For organisations that are less risk averse than Apple (or those who have learned from the mistakes made by the early innovators), we are often asked to help put together the right team mix to reduce performance ramp up time. Although psychometrics can play a part in this, numbers on a profile or a wheel are not enough. We have been working with clients to put together these teams based on a myriad of information we have about each individual. We then support them through direct observation, one to one coaching and team development. These organisations are managing the risk that comes from disruptive talent and maximising the opportunities as a result.
As we have the privilege of working with many organisations, we can blend a variety of insights to help our clients identify an approach that is right for them. To implement a game changing idea and to make it a reality may mean taking a risk on those who appear to be disruptive and think quite differently from others in the organisation. Managing this where it is really needed and creating an optimum environment and mix of teams enables a better focus not just on generating ideas but delivering them too. Its about balancing the mix of team skills, understanding then enabling players to become intrinsically motivated and trusted to collaborate and to deliver.
Here’s to the crazy ones…