Lessons in innovation from Steve Wozniak

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Taking inspiration from his recent trip to Australia, Sharon Williams shares her 10 top tips for inspiring innovation in your business.

 Steve Wozniak, technical co-founder of Apple, recently visited Australia to talk about his life and experiences founding Apple Inc with Steve Jobs. The Woz, as he is affectionately known, was disarmingly devoid of the legendary charisma of Steve Jobs, but was nonetheless warm, real, introverted and engaging.

As the original 70s tech geek, Wozniak began innovating as an 11-year-old (the same age as my son!), tinkering with all things electronic, building transistors, calculators and designing circuits. He told how he was the archetypal uncool teenager, staying home eating pizza and dreaming of the day when every home would have a personal computer at a time when computers were the size of room.

Wozniak created the Apple I and Apple II in the mid 1970s and greatly contributed to the personal computer revolution. He was the technical brilliance behind the sales and marketing vision of Jobs. “Steve would always find a way to turn them into money,” Wozniak recalled. “He knew where to sell things. I never thought about that, I just built things for fun.”

Both Wozniak and Jobs flunked college, stifled by the need to conform to a curriculum. They wanted to create things outside the subject matter but, as Wozniak explained, there were no textbooks around about the things they were doing. There was no one to turn to for advice or instruction about the innovation revolution they were slowly unleashing.

Wozniak, in his lovable, rather homely way, talked of a life of technical innovation until a private aeroplane crash altered his vision of the world and he left Apple to become a school teacher. It is an inspiring story and his tips for innovation and creativity are worth sharing. Here is my interpretation of some of Wozniak’s tips for harbouring an innovative and creative environment.

  • Brainstorms should be no more than 10 minutes

Keep it short and sweet. Brainstorms traditionally go for too long and don’t add value beyond a certain point. Make sure your team feels safe that there is no such thing as a bad idea and particularly encourage new recruits to get involved in the brainstorming process as their offerings will be fresh and devoid of existing ‘company think’.

  • Give everyone two jobs

Challenge your team’s existing way of thinking by asking them to take a two–pronged approach to their job – continuing to do their best to be efficient and effective but also asking them to unearth a totally new approach to their role. Get your key people to ask themselves the big questions such as ‘How can I deliver better results to clients?’ And ‘What is really at the core of my role?’ 

  • Build innovation from within – sometimes one person at a time

Cultural change happens one team member at a time! A recent landmark report from Cambridge University stated that innovation success is primarily dependent on corporate culture.  Out of 800 firms across 17 cultures, company culture was the single greatest determinant of innovation success – not process, star hires, R&D spend, budget or national culture. Improving connectivity within and across teams is also key to grassroots change.

  • Make space and time for thinking and innovation

Allocating a physical space where creativity can unfurl is crucial to the process. It’s not for nothing that companies such as Google and Apple have recreational areas with pool tables, gaming consoles and funky furniture. It’s often in these relaxing moments that bright ideas spark. Giving people valuable alone time also helps get the creative juices flowing.

  • Don’t be confined by price or resources

In order to grow and move forward, risks must be taken at some point. Woz never thought about the cost or the resourcing necessary to make his first PC, he made it anyway. It takes multiple brains sometimes to see an idea to fruition, but don’t be restricted in the innovation process.

  • Take time to listen

Innovation just might pass you by if aren’t really listening to those around you. We were born with two ears and one mouth for a reason! Develop a keen ear for quiet asides as well as those who speak the loudest and make the most noise. Also use social media to listen to what others saying your company and your services.

  • Lead by example

If you set the overall direction in which you want your world to go, it makes it easier for staff to have a clear idea of your goals, vision and challenges. Innovative leaders foster environments where success is rewarded and failure is celebrated as something to learn from. Encourage an experimental atmosphere.

  • Reflect on each company process

It is important to reflect on and constructively judge your company’s work. Include all employees in the reflection process.

  • Reward

Keep your staff motivated with rewards and incentives important to them, not you. Break the rules. It’s also an option to incentivise teams where possible to promote collaboration.

  • Celebrate success

The company that plays together stays together. Celebrating successes, goals and milestones outside of the workplace builds relationships and makes coming to work a pleasure! Take your team out of their regular habitat once in a while and watch innovation flow.

So how will you innovate?

Con Zeritis of Industrie IT facilitates innovation in a unique way at his IT services company of 60 staff in Sydney, following the Apple way. His people build large-scale online solutions for brands such as NAB, Optus and Crust Pizza. He started an initiative called the Business Incubator and explains: “It allows the team to sit in our client’s seat and think about how to apply technology to run a successful business. We embrace a ‘fail fast’ approach so we quickly learn what factors drive success and then we direct these insights into our client engagements so they derive the benefit. We’ve already celebrated a few successful failures – there is nothing like learning from experience!”