Forget Steve Jobs as a role model for innovation – you need to look to Homer Simpson, says Mike Adam.
Homer Simpson appears an unlikely candidate for an innovator to take lessons from, except perhaps as in ‘how not to’. Remember the time he was invited to design a new car?
But then again, Mike Adam, founder of Amigo Technology, pointed out at the recent Digital Transformation Conference in London, one of Homer’s throwaway lines perfectly encapsulates a successful approach to innovation: “If at first you don’t succeed, give up and try something else.”
It’s funny in the context of what we know about Homer, but it also makes a serious point about innovation: you need to be able to try stuff and fail.
Far better to think like Homer, Adam suggested, than to seek inspiration from the man who’s often held up as one of the greats of innovation. Apple wouldn’t be what it is today without Steve Jobs, it’s true, but how many people can say they enjoyed working with the man.
Yet he remains the modern exemplar of innovation success and his line about “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do” is widely quoted. But Jobs is simply an example of survivor bias at work, Adam believes: for every one person like Jobs who succeeds there’s another 997 who don’t. And the character traits Jobs displayed are not ones that any sane employer would actively look for.
“If I said to you, what you need to do to transform your enterprise is just go and hire some psychopaths, you’d think I was a prick,” he remarked.
But Jobs and his ilk have long fed a business book industry that purports to find lessons for the rest of us in the habits of successful men (and they are usually men). In the case of innovators these boil down to things like vision, driven, smart, powerful, ambitious, unconstrained and able to think outside the box.
“That is pretty much our view culturally of what an innovator should look like, what an entrepreneur should look like,” said Adam. “Which is odd really, because almost everyone I know who has been successful as an entrepreneur doesn’t look like this at all.”
Adam offers up an alternative “seven habits”: inventive, open-minded, practical, pragmatic, flexible, happily constrained and able to think inside the box.
If necessity is the mother of invention, he contends that constraint is the mother of innovation and he’s built his latest business on that philosophy – offering businesses with legacy technology a way to rapidly test new user experiences and innovate like a start-up.
“There’s nothing magic about that,” he maintained. “It’s about not being the asshole Steve Jobs, and about simply accepting the world as it actually is and finding a way to be creative within that.” That said, he does acknowledge that there is a place for such assholes, just not inside large enterprises attempting to transform themselves to meet the demands of the digital age.
Look instead to Homer, whose quip about trying something else is effectively what scientists do, testing and refining hypotheses. It’s no surprise that Albert Einstein is one of Adam’s heroes: “he never believed the answer was in the data. He always believed the answer was in the hypothesis and the experiment ... he was perfectly prepared to be proved wrong.”
And Homer, you’ll recall, is also incredibly lazy – but don’t underestimate laziness as a driver of innovation, Adam advises. It was his own desire to escape the drudgery of his City job in the early 1980s that encouraged him to find a way to automate the previously manual process of updating charts and market data. “I worked hard to avoid work,” he said – and in doing so went on to create a successful business that he subsequently sold.
“I had no vision that I was going to change the way that people apply technology to financial markets,” he said. “I was motivated by creative laziness, and by a process of iterative discovery, and it led somewhere amazing.”