The Steve Jobs Excuse

Steve Jobs wasn’t known to be a fan of gutless whining. That’s why I imagine he’d be rolling in his grave if he heard something I hear all the time.  I call it the “Steve Jobs Excuse.”

It goes something like this… let’s say you’re a manager in a corporation.  You’re frustrated with your company.  You wish it could be more innovative but it seems too slow, too bureaucratic, too political, too inbred or too complacent to make the bold changes you wish it would.  You find yourself throwing your hands up in the air (or leaning over your drink at happy hour) saying something like “there’s no way we’ll innovate and grow with our current leadership.  What it takes is the rare CEO with the mental agility to balance the core business with visionary new growth.  We just don’t have that.  None of our leaders are innovators.  Nothing can help us, were doomed [or something more colorful].  It takes someone like Steve Jobs to turn our organization around and I don’t see that happening here anytime soon.”

I appreciate how demoralizing it can be in a company struggling to innovate.  Truly.  I also have the utmost respect for Steve’s talents and accomplishments.  Having disclaimed those sentiments… stop being such a wuss.

Yes, companies can be slow, bureaucratic, political, inbred and complacent.  Yes, sometimes they wouldn’t know innovation if it hit them between the eyes.  Yes, leaders can be dreadfully incompetent, cowardly and even harmful when it comes to the challenges of growth.  My point is – as long as they’re paying your bills – you owe them a duty not to give up.  More importantly, you owe yourself a duty not to give up.  Don’t quit.  Never accept innovation and growth as futile just because your leaders are too stupid to make it happen.  It’s your job to charge the hill no matter how many times you get shot and roll back down.  If you don’t – who will?  The fate of your company and the communities that depend on it are in your hands.  Failure is not an option.

Circling back to the Steve Jobs Excuse, don’t give in to a rescue fantasy.  You’re better than that.  You’re not a princess (that is… unless you actually are) in a castle waiting to be saved by a handsome knight.  You’re no hooker with a heart of gold hanging around Sunset Boulevard to get snatched up by Richard Gere to live in the Hamptons.  Don’t assume some mythic CEO is your only hope.  That’s defeatist thinking.

Look… sometimes horrible leaders can, and do, kill perfectly good companies.  But keep in mind, literally thousands of great companies have had inspirational, innovative growth without Steve.  There have also been countless businesses, big and small, with visionary leaders that crashed and burned.  All kinds of companies have risen and fallen with all kinds of leadership.  Just beware of the hindsight bias. It’s also dangerous to succumb to the fundamental attribution error – a tendency for people to over-emphasize personality-based explanations while under-emphasizing the role of situational influences.  Don’t stop trying to be part of the solution and refuse to be part of the problem. Progress can only hope to begin when you stop waiting for someone else to save the day.

I know there can be career risk in “fighting the good fight” innovation-wise when you have poor leadership.  I know it can be thankless, frustrating and… just plain maddening.  Still, don’t give in to futility.  Don’t let the dark side of the Force win.  Great change is rarely easy.  That’s why your company needs you to be bold, persistent, creative and to never give up. In the words of Martin Luther King, “human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”  Don’t succumb to the Steve Jobs Excuse – my guess is he wouldn’t tolerate it either.


This Post Has 13 Comments

  1. Mike

    I like this, although admit I’ve wished my CEO was more visionary. I guess it’s up to me to try and help us do the right thing regardless. There’s only so much we can do without final support but it makes sense to not stop trying.

  2. Toby

    Thanks Thomas. This is an intriguing take on big company inertia. Essentially if you are fed up with it, change things yourself. However, my advice to any one continually battling unsuccessfully for a better way of doing things, is to consider seeking your chances elsewhere if you are endlessly frustrated.

  3. Tim

    For 11 years prior to starting my own business, I worked in large organizations (IBM, Singer,etc). I used a Plan B approach to innovate and get things done. The “B” stands for Bottoms-up (this has nothing to do with happy hour!). I realized that in order to innovate within large organizations you sometimes need to implement change on a small scale and build on your small success. Once the “leaders” see what’s happening and how people are reacting, they are more apt to “lead, follow, or get the hell out of the way”. At the very least, you can maintain your sanity this way.

    I cover these strategies in my new book, “Unlocking Your Entrepreneurial Potential”

  4. Ozzy

    There’s nothing worse than waiting for a complacent manager to innovate for you. But who says you have to wait? Innovate at any level!!!

  5. Bengt

    I like this! Regardless if it’s about the Arabian spring or development of companies, everything comes down to the effort of individuals. To identify a problem is just the first step. The moment of thruth is when you start to do something about it. It can be a tough process, but I am sure you will feel more satisfied with yourself if you stepped up. Eventually you will also be recognised.

  6. Walter

    If it gets done, it is because someone cared enough to fight for it, until it happens.

  7. Thom

    Thank’s very, very, very and very much.

  8. Victor Newman

    I agree, don’t go down that “ain’t it a shame” route, use techniques to move those people at the top who might frankly be bored with the SQ. Use techniques like Linguistic Torpedo, Local Hero, and Reverse Innovation/ Smart Failure to begin to shift the agenda. Innovation is a political act and it requires viral techniques to overcome established Relational Capital constructed around the current technologies. If there’s going to be a debate, then it needs some feeding….

  9. Udit

    Do take a look at “Riding the Blue Train” by Bart Sayle & Surinder Kumar. It tells of how cultural transformations were made in stodgy companies.

    “I can’t see it happen” = Resigned thinking
    “It cant happen” = Cynical thinking
    Such a chain of thoughts in few staffers influences several others, sapping their energies and thus, bringing in a Red Train of Negative thoughts.
    “I will do anything to make it happen” = Heroic thinking
    “Anything can be done” = Magical thinking
    This is the Blue Train of magical and heroic thoughts that are introduced via the same chain of opinion leaders.

  10. Matt Snyder

    Steve Jobs, Woodward & Bernstein, and Elvis are all dead and they aren’t coming back. (Except maybe Elvis.) We all need to step up. As a man with over 15 years in R&D and Manufacturing I personally have been responsible for the “where the rubber meets the road” product and/or system changes/improvements (the word “innovation” is overused to the point of losing its value) most often arriving at a company in the wake of an incompetent “Engineer” or misunderstood “Marketing Concept” and came up smelling like roses each and every time. The real problem is management not being direct and honest when EvilCorp promises the Sun, Moon and stars to “just fix it” when it is obvious they have no intention of keeping their commitments because they can hide what is in reality a fraud behind the phrase, “Did you get it in writing?” It is they who should be doing the writing without needing to be prompted to do so instead of making committments that are really just lies.

    When the cleaning up somebody else’s mess was completed and it was time for the company to deliver on their part of the bargain egos and incompetence combine to relieve the guy in the white hat (who delivered a miracle as promised) of his employment so some overpaid “Manager” doesn’t have to confront his conceit and corrupted nature and improve himself. That’s why I left aerospace and decided it was time to open the filing cabinet full of 15 years worth of my best IP and work to be an example to others that it is possible to tell people the truth, create a business with sterling ethics written in stone, and be successful anyway. What we at Scipio Biofuels created, prototyped and patented still is (as far as I’m aware today) the only available comprehensive system for the truly continuous cultivation and harvesting of photosynthetic microalgae for the biofuels, nutraceutical, and pharmaceutical industries on an industrial scale that produces quantities within a time frame that makes the whole thing economically viable. Capital should be falling all over itself to find us, one might be dumb enough to believe.

    Three years ago, I was the only person in a hotel conference room filled with over 300 PhD Engineers & Phycologists pitching algae production process concepts to capital providers. Not one of the capital seekers could be bothered to show up prepared with complete designs for all system components required. Except of course for myself. The “educated” people in the room were the ones using indefinite phrases like, “We intend to…” and “We want to…” while I alone was able to say, “I have…”, “I can…” and “I did…”. As a 3rd generation “Innovator”, my direct experience has been that capital providers are by and large incapable of recognizing anything related to genuine innovation as a concept. When they do see it, their first instinct is to screw over the real innovator at every turn. Even when the length of the lead over the best of the competition is as obvious as the day is long, capital flows to the ideas with the least potential first. Maybe the US should be allowed to become the 3rd world nation the politicos have been working towards for many years. After all, I can start up overseas much more easily than here. What has my country done in the last 25 years to help me “get a life”? Not a damned thing.

    Let’s be real for a moment, growth and innovation (especially innovation) are the two things 99.99% of CEO’s avoid like the plague simply because these two corporate responsibilities impart a measure of unpredictability (paid for by tax deductions for R&D) and are by their nature a bit messy. Which only means the CEO has to actually work for their ridiculous compensation and their “legacy” isn’t a foregone conclusion. Waaa! Waaa! Call the Waaambulance! CEO’s are NOT athletes and accomplish nothing that validates the idea of CEO compensation more than 15x the guy at he very bottom and certainly not 250x. Did Jobs care about predictability in his role as CEO or making a mess? Hell no! Real innovation has been de-valued by cowardly “Yes Man Management” who long ago bought into the particularly tiny minded and unethical idea that true innovation could be purchased off-the-rack at a super discount below doing it themselves like they’re supposed to. All the while believing that somehow magically nobody loses their life’s work during the company’s innovation acquisition process. As a real Innovator, being told by someone who is supposed to “know better” that what I have created really isn’t worth anything, then with their next breath making an insulting low-ball offer to purchase the IP speaks volumes about bankers as a group of people. It says they should be policing themselves or finding another job. If the IP I’ve created was truly of “little to no value” as described above, I wouldn’t be getting any offer from the yo-yo in the example at all.

    These business practices are being learned somewhere. Somewhere like every MBA program in America that teaches students how to cook the books better than the students last semester instead of how to do the work better than the last semester. Am I the only person to see that “gaming the system” while today is “only” unethical, should be illegal and examples should be made of the slightest violations by those in positions of authority (especially including government at all levels). Real innovators are smart enough to search the world in order to find and hire people with the necessary skills the innovator lacks. I already know who besides myself will be the next CEO at Scipio. He’s a genuine business bad-ass.

    Innovators begin their careers often as technicians who tire of being taken advantage of. That means they understand the sciences and related necessary disciplines like design and manufacturing. Innovators also know how to use hand tools. Something all in management (the highest overhead personnel) consider to be of little to no value if wages at the bottom are any indication at all. Oh yeah I forgot, the CEO outsourced their manufacturing jobs right after they dumped in-house R&D out of greed, indolence and total indifference to the logical eventuality that the combined actions of many CEO’s are lowering the standard of living of their countrymen. In so doing these “shortcut CEO’s” have been pulling the rug out from under fledgling innovators by imposing artificial poverty on them that eventually will only swallow us all, not unlike these troubled times. Why do “Managers” only think short-term? Do you actually believe the Chinese or Iranians only worry about the next fiscal quarter? I wasn’t a huge fan of Steve Jobs, but I will deeply miss him. He knew how to use hand tools.

    De-centralized, continuous, industrial sale production of microalgae for biofuels as well as the feedstocks for the Nutra and Pharma markets is possible immediately. Not next week or next year, or 10 years down the road. All it takes is a little capital to put all of these green energy ducks in a row and start to restore the US economy. Did “Financial Innovators” ever exist? Or, was that outsourced to China as well? As it stands today, America deserves the future coming down the tracks unless the people at the bottom like myself are looked to by bankers instead of looked past.

    Got capital AND balls?

  11. Wayd

    To be a world class CEO you need trust yourself and more specifically those around you. With complacency comes failure. The best CEO can sell himself and his/her vision of innovation; daily, weekly, monthly…anytime. If your on staff in a start up, small company chances are you believe in your leader or you wouldn’t be there in the first place. If you are only there to ride the bus and not help improve its chassis and fuel economy…its gonna be a bumpy ride.

  12. Greg Borchardt

    You submit many valid points that need to be said and which some people need to follow. I have to admit, I sometimes fell into the “Steve Jobs Excuse” crowd. However, I took a different approach. I left the company I didn’t like working for and started my own. While it has been particularly challenging at times, I have never been happier.

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