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How Apple's Think Different Transformed The World

How Apple's Think Different Transformed The World

In 1997, Steve Jobs returned to Apple. And launched what became a world-famous advertising campaign. Think Different. Below are the original words:

The Original Think Different Text

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes.

The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them.

About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They invent. They imagine. They heal. They explore. They create. They inspire. They push the human race forward.

Maybe they have to be crazy.

How else can you stare at an empty canvas and see a work of art? Or sit in silence and hear a song that’s never been written? Or gaze at a red planet and see a laboratory on wheels?

We make tools for these kinds of people.

While some see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.

- Apple, "Think Different" campaign, 1997-2001

The Impact of Think Different

The impact on technology is obvious. But what about work? The place where technology is made. What does it actually mean to think different at work?

There are two stories about Steve Jobs that I constantly return to that illustrate how a leader should think different.

  1. His reaction to the product presentations he sat through on his return to Apple. At this time, the assumption was that people wanted a computer that exactly matched up budget to requirements. So, Apple had a range of computers to hit every price point in the market. And were getting battered by Microsoft. Halfway through the presentation, Jobs' frustration got the better of him. He stopped it. Tore up the entire range. Replaced it with four models. Price point was irrelevant. They just had to be beautiful.
  2. Apple's engineers were working on a new operating system. They were doing standard development tasks. At the same time, they had an engineering sandbox. Imagined an operating system that would be far too expensive to put in production. Full of wondrous twists. And beautiful design. Jobs heard about this. Walked into the lab. Asked them to present it to him. And immediately turned it into the production model. Threw everything else into the bin. And happily delayed release by over a year. 

Steve Jobs lived to think different. To challenge the status quo. Question the assumptions underpinning the industry. Dare to do something that nobody else is trying to do. Disrupt. Innovate. Transform. 

The result of Jobs' different thinking is legend. Apple revolutionises the technological landscape. Releases game changer after game changer. Transforms the world. And our lives. 

Think Different for the technological leader is clear. Follow Jobs' lead. The second level of impact is less well understood. It doesn't relate to technological innovation. But on how we think about work. The impact of Think Different here is fascinating. And a little dark. 

How Apple Transformed How We Think About Work

In the early 1980s, strong culture was all the rage. In a nutshell, it suggests that: 

explicit corporate values + aligned employees = loyalty, hard-work, commitment & excellent company performance

The biggest influencer on the movement was Tom Peters.  And his search for excellence. 

For those who don't know who he is, Tom Peters is simply one of the most influential thinkers on management alive todayIn Search of Excellence sold three million copies in its first four years of publication. It's one of the biggest selling business books ever. From 1989-2006, it was the most widely stocked book about organisations and management in the USA. In fact, the most widely stocked book about any single specialist subject. 

The themes of In Search of Excellence became The McKinsey 7-S Framework. McKinsey argues its relevance and importance endures to this day. Forbes agrees, stating that In Search of Excellence is an essential book for founders and CEOs. They say:

Whether it’s holacracy, The Responsive Organisation, lean startup, agile development, or many other ideas we’ve read about in the last few years, you’ll find them all inside In Search of Excellence

But Apple's Think Different was a game changer. It tore up many of the assumptions that underpinned Peter's ideas. You had to allow creativity. Encourage innovative thinking. Take risks. To do that, you had to remove many of the behavioural and structural controls of a strong culture. 

Post Think Different, Tom Peters has had a new epiphany. He now rails against petty tyrants running organisations. Argues that traditional management control restricts the natural capacity of humans. Believes we need diverse mindsets to handle the ongoing change and ambiguity of organisational life.  

He wants us to hire zanies, nutters, freaks and mavericks. People who express their natural, creative curiosity. And let them be innovative and imaginative beings. Just like the people Apple's Think Different celebrates. 

None of this is bad. In fact, much of it sounds wonderful. But it sits uncomfortably against his still dominant strong culture model. 

Why? Because cultures change slowly. Very slowly. In fact, very, very slowly. They require everyone to think and behave in roughly the same way. That's what holds them together. Disagree? Well, think about how well national cultures are handling increased diversity. Multi-cultural differences. Gender differences. Even different political viewpoints. We are seeing increased levels of ugliness. Fear. Anxiety. Even hatred. 

And we have stopped believing the managerial class of our national cultures, the politicians, can find an answer.  

Why do we expect organisational culture to work in any other way? Think MBA-trained managers can solve the problem? With their graphs and charts and diagnostic tools? Really?

How can we expect the structures of the strong culture model to produce freethinking rebels? Or crazy geniuses thinking different to everyone else? When they are supposed to produce precisely the opposite. 

Apple's Think Different told us how we should think. But not how to think differently about think different. We need to correct that. 

The Irony of Our Working Lives

So, where are we at? It's not a pretty picture. 

  • 86% of employees believe there is a leadership crisis
  • 85% of employees are disengaged
  • 75% of employees say their boss is the worst part of their job
  • 66% of change fails
  • 66% of millennials are looking for a new job

Let's examine these one by one. To fully understand the clash between strong culture and think different:

86% of employees believe there is a leadership crisis: Hardly unexpected if we are clamping together two incompatible models. One one hand, leaders are supposed to create strong cultures. Align their employees. Strip off the fat. Make things lean and efficient. Routinized. Measurable. On the other hand, they are supposed to lead creative, innovate thinkers. People who can make a difference. The very people who won't fit into a lean, routinized and measurable environment. 

85% of employees are disengaged: You are supposed to align with values but make a difference. Do what you're told but think for yourselves. Behave but be a rebel. Be a company man and authentically yourself. With such irresolvable tensions, is it any wonder employees are constantly anxious? In a schizophrenic environment, should we not expect emotional stress? If we never know how to act, isn't it likely we'll cling on to anything stable. Resist change. Avoid ambiguity. Settle for mediocrity. 

75% of employees say their boss is the worst part of their job: It's next to impossible to be a good boss in such an environment. You are juggling so many contradictory imperatives. Having to keep two completely different ways of working aligned. Keep employees and executives happy. And still perform yourself. Is it surprising that most of us hate you? And is it fair?

66% of change fails: We have two incompatible models of behaviour co-existing. Creating a deeply uncomfortable environment. Then we throw in new ways of doing things. New ways to think about things. Increasing the ambiguity. The complexity. And the stress. And we wonder why it is difficult to get people to accept change. Why they resist. And why they leave. 

66% of millennials are looking for a new job: New to work. Expecting what they've been promised in the interview. Great cultures staffed by creative and energetic employees. Discover the above. Find themselves unable to be the creatively different person the technological revolution supposedly delivers. Leave in an often hopeless journey to find something better. Get blamed for a total lack of commitment. 

So, work, for most of, sucks. Stuck between the Scylla of strong culture and the Charybdis of Think Different. Go too close to either and be eaten alive or dashed to pieces.  Is there a way out? Or are future generations doomed to live worse stats than seen here? 

What Are We Doing About It?

We are moving away the tenets of strong culture. Management thought is less about organisation. And more about understanding the individual. In the hope we can identify the crazy geniuses that thinks different. Just as Jobs told us to.

But, as McKinsey and Forbes point out, strong culture persists and endures. It influences all of our thinking. 

So we haven't worked it through. We've created a terrible half-and-half environment. You must be the same as everyone. But different. A team player. But an individual. Aligned. But apart. And the tension in the incompatibilities is making us crazy. But not crazy in the Think Different way. 

It's not working. Disengagement is growing. Fear and anxiety everywhere. So, of course, we just do more of the same. And more. And more. To distract ourselves from what is really wrong. We aren't doing anything new or clever. Just training people to cope while we endlessly redesign our organisations. 

Training People to Cope

We don't think seriously about the working environment. We know it is causing all kinds of stress, but we don't know how to fix it. So we focus on helping people cope with it. 

Organisational psychologists: What do you do when you never know how to act? Whether option A will bring praise or punishment. Likewise for option B. You can't change the external environment. Its psychosis is far too well established. So you have to change yourself. Learn how to cope with never knowing how you should act. 

We have refocused attention on inner feelings. Emotional intelligence. Positive psychology. Mindfulness. How to understand yourself. How to remain calm and content in a shit-storm. We get taught that being discontent and disengaged is our problem. Not the organisation's. We must improve ourselves. Understand our feelings better. And everything will suddenly be fine. 

It's a vital component of being a good middle-manager. Stuck in the middle of contradictory imperatives. Needing to have close control of your inner feelings to survive. Requiring a high EQ. Don't believe me? Then listen to LinkedIn favourite and EQ expert, Dr Travis Bradberry. The graph at exactly five minutes in.

But this defeats the entire idea of think different. Firstly, it is merely a placebo. A method of distracting attention. Stopping you from reflecting on your unhappy consciousness.

Secondly, it undermines transformational creativity. Transformational creatives want to change the world because they are deeply unhappy or frustrated with it. They see its flaws and follies in their full glory. Try to address them. Make them real for everybody. Opening up the world for new possibilities.

Trying to soothe such people into fuzzy happiness undermines everything they might achieve. Before they've even thought about achieving it. 

Business coaches: Most coaching revolves around teaching leaders to be authentic. Reaching into themselves to wrestle with a problem. Grapple and tussle with it. Throw it around. Add some ethics. Stir in a little personal meaning. Then make that decision!

How's that a problem? Because throughout history, authenticity emerges when a culture becomes so absurd it produces no stable meaning. When you try to be an authentic leader, you are basically accepting organisational culture has failed. The glue of culture has become unstuck. The only thing of any value is what is internal to you. Your own inner goals and dreams. 

So, authenticity is a way to think different. But one that detaches you completely from the cultural form. And from the people who live in it. Because their realities are absurd. As are their problems. So they can place no restraints or limits on your behaviour. Your possibilities are endless. Your boundaries infinite. Feels good, huh?

But the things you do, while seeming authentic, interesting and good to you, might be massively harmful to them. Make things worse rather than better. They can't stop you or influence you. They just have to deal with what you deliver. And that might be something far worse than what came before. Despite your best intentions. 

Redesigning Organisations 

When we do think about redesigning organizations, we don't know how to let go of the strong culture model. So we exist in a world of culture fit and swirling change. Without either really meaning very much. 

Fake Culture: A lot of time and energy is spent on trying to design a great culture. To explain exactly how your company is different from the norm. How it thinks different. How its employees are different. Why its culture is truly great in a world where so many truly suck.

But the conversation is no longer about shared core beliefs. But about how you can be yourself. Bring your whole self to work. Wear cool clothes. Listen to funky music. Have flexible hours. Enjoy a drink at work. Play Fuss-ball or table-tennis, get pizza discounts, chill on comfy sofas. Have an iPad and Airbook. Get cheap cinema tickets. 

That's not culture. It's lifestyle. A celebration of individualism.

Companies are trying to think different about culture. In exactly the same way that every other company thinks they think different. But there is no value in the idea anymore. No intellectual weight. Just magical thinking. Hoping that a new culture will solve all the problems. It's a grotesque parody of what it used to be.

We've created a conformity of nonconformity. Basically, this:

Recruitment: With no way of properly differentiating between cultures, we have got in a real tizz about recruitment. The technicalities of the job have become everything. We hear about the talent drain. The skills shortage. We rely on recruiters to find us the perfect skills fit. Who's done exactly the right list of things for exactly the right length of time at exactly the right type of company. Short-listed for interview.

x% to the left or y% to the right. Too difficult to train. Can't pick up the job and run from day one. Not quite the right background.  Might bring something unexpected to the table. The possibility to think different about the job. Even change it. Weeded out!

Then the culture fit interview. Do you think different in the same way we think different? Are you nonconformist enough to fit with our form of nonconformity? Or are you too conformist to conform? Crazy questions for a crazy environment. 

In order to find people that think different, we've designed a set of routines and processes perfectly designed to not hire the people that actually think different!

Constant Change Management: We can't work out why the above is not working. So we change things and change things and change things. Remix In Search for Excellence in a myriad of different ways. Holacracy. The Responsive Organisation. Lean Startup. Agile Development.

But this just adds more ambiguity to the mix. The pressure of constantly having to adapt to change. And fear. That if you can't adapt, you'll be chucked out.

Shiny unhappy people. 

A New Metaphor for Organisation? 

Thanks to the above, our relationships with organisations often resemble abusive relationships. The organisation the abuser. The employee the abused. We must cope with two ways of expected behaviour. That fundamentally conflict with each other. And you never know which to do. Which one will bring praise. And which one punishment.

There's never any consistency either. Do this one day, get praised. Same thing the next day, get punished. One boss likes one thing. The next hates it. Then things change and what was good is bad. And vice versa. 

Consequently, you end up walking on eggshells. Never willing to put your head above the parapet. Doing just enough to keep your job, but never risking anything more. Embracing mediocrity, because it's safer to do that than express criticism. Or show negative emotions. You must be a happy team player. Whatever you feel and think. Or else!

Or else the abuser will pounce on you. And hit you harder than ever before. Tell you of the terrible consequences if you go any further. Forcing you into enduring never-ending contradictory demands without protest. Or to gather up all your courage, walk out and find something else. 

And that fails to keep most of the abused safe. Many of them walk into a relationship just like the last one. Knowing that it will likely be much the same. But resigned that this will be their life.  

Unfortunately, I speak from bitter experience when I talk about this metaphor. I was once in a non-metaphorical abusive relationship. Know how much effort it takes to stay sane. Know how difficult it is to realise it's not your fault. Recognise that the abuser has to change. And then walk out a survivor, your dignity restored. 

Which is why this metaphor has so much resonance for me. I see in other people how I was. The same tics. The same reactions. But at work! Inescapable work!

Think Different about Organisations Today

I started with a Steve Jobs quote. I'll end with three. Why? Because, alongside telling us how to think different, Steve Jobs has shown us how to do it. We've just been so blinded by the goal, we haven't listened to the means. 

How To Find An Artist Of Work

Ultimately, it comes down to taste. It comes down to trying to expose yourself to the best things that humans have done and then try to bring those things into what you’re doing. Picasso had a saying: good artists copy, great artists steal. And we have always been shameless about stealing great ideas, and I think 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. 

We need to abandon the way we evaluate people. Stop regarding personality tests as evidence of future performance. Stop testing them for culture fit. Stop putting people into specialised boxes because HR requires it that way. We need to look at people who can take inspiration and ideas from the full spectrum of human living.

  • The comic actor who can use Star Trek to explain Nietzsche.
  • The psychologist who employs viruses and anthropology to challenge conventional thinking in management science.
  • The patent clerk who employed electric signals to reshape our understanding of the universe.
  • The nerdy-hippy who dropped out of college to tour India, walked into a calligraphy class on impulse, and changed the world. 

Finding narrow specialists will produce a narrow organisation. With no scope to discover new and wonderful ways of working. Knowledge is power. Ideas from different spheres of knowledge interact and make the impossible possible. So find people who think widely. Becuase that is how they think different. 

How To Be A Creative Thinker About Work

Creativity is just connecting things. 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. It seemed obvious to them after a while.

This is slowly happening. We are being to look for creativity in different places. Not just the techno-geniuses who code and engineer the future. But in people that connect things. The creative class of management and leadership!

The synthetic thinkers. The catalytic agents. The Flatworld Navigators. The network connectors. The in-betweeners. The outsider-insiders. The boundary-spanners. The Tempered Radicals. The principled infidels. The ironic heroes. 

People who elegantly fuse concepts, connect interesting people with interesting ideas, and make the whole more than the parts. Those that think different. Have different ways of understanding the world. See different ways of doing things. Who, thanks to world shrinking technologies, are beginning to find some influence. Meet each other. Chat about new possibilities.  

How To Transmit Ideas To Management

Simple can be harder than complex; you have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple.

New ideas are complex, messy things. They are full of loose ends that need to be tidied up. Tangential thinking that has to be turned back around. Masses of data that has to be understood, organised and polished. It's a hard task. And one that takes a long time to master. Perhaps the fabled 10,000 hours. 

It also has to compete with simplistic models. Shiny things that promise a lot but say little. A bit like what this guy is (or is not) peddling. 

Making something complex simple is, as Steve Jobs said, perhaps the most difficult thing of all. But it must have elegant simplicity. Or it will come to nothing. Management will be convinced by yet another snake oil salesman. Peddling dodgy wares. That looks so easy. And promises so much.  But doesn't Think Different. 

So, there it is. A simple conclusion. We need creative thinkers who elegantly transmit complex ideas in difficult cultural environments. 

I beg your indulgence for one more Steve Jobs quote. About Socrates. A creative thinker who elegantly transmitted complex ideas in a difficult cultural environment. Before the leaders executed him for daring to challenge the status quo. Which takes us neatly back to the beginning. 

Designing the Millennial Workplace
HBR says, "You Can't Fix Culture!" Well, duh!

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The Ironic Manager seriously rethinks how organisations work at the most fundamental level and offers a variety of solutions for businesses struggling to cope with the ambiguity and stresses inherent to contemporary organisational conditions of constant change.

Richard has been helping businesses and people deal with leadership, management, communication, technology and change for over twenty years through his training, coaching, speaking and consulting services. 

His innovative research is highly regarded by world-leaders in management and leadership. 

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