Finding the Next Steve Jobs: How to Find, Keep, and Nurture Talent
If you want to study accomplishment, someone once told me, don't look only at the creative individual's life and choices. Look at the person's parents' background, because those people likely established an environment that permitted (if not inspired) the freedom to think differently. (Which is not to say that parents get the credit, but rather that they enabled the creativity, intentionally or otherwise.) If that's so, then it also makes sense to look at the attitudes of creative people's mentors, too -- and top on the list has to be Nolan Bushnell.
I think Bushnell is less-well-known to younger techies and entrepreneurs, and that's a damned shame. He founded and/or ran several companies that blazed new paths and did the unexpected, most prominently Atari and Chuck E Cheese -- as well as quite a few that didn't succeed, about which he is more candid than most. That alone would make his business advice worth listening to.
In this context, however, Bushnell is the most interesting (or marketable?) because of his impact on the young Steve Jobs, when Jobs (and then Woz) came to work at Atari. Bushnell saw Jobs' skills (and his weaknesses, too) and took the kid under his wing, creating a lifelong relationship in which they clearly inspired one another. And, as Bushnell writes, "The truth is that very few companies would hire Steve, even today. Why? Because he was an outlier. To most potential employers, he'd just seem like a jerk in bad clothing. And yet a jerk in bad clothing can be exactly the right guy to give your company the highest market capitalization in the world."
In this book, therefore, Bushnell shares snippets of advice -- he calls them "pongs" -- that can help a business identify and foster the creative talent within the organization. Most are short chapters with both anecdotes and specific suggestions, making them easily consumable, a little at time, for people with busy lives (doing creative things, I assume). There's advice on everything from hiring interviews to finding creatives (via Twitter!) to "instituting a degree of anarchy" to requiring risk (and "rewarding turkeys").
So, for example, Bushnell suggests one way to make it harder for a company to say No is to make people responsible for their criticism, because those with the most authority in a go/no-go decision "tend to be the ones who can analyze it least intelligently." One way, he says, is to set a rule that objections must be written down. For one thing, it forces the critic to be specific: "If the worst part of an idea is its cost, writing down actual numbers forces people to be more precise," Bushnell says, and it lets the idea's creator rebut or investigate the options.
The pongs make for outstanding reading, but I reluctantly withhold a fifth star because I'm not completely sure who will read this book. Certainly it's not the people whom we would agree NEED to read it, such as all the "We've always done it this way" bean-counter-led organizations that... well, I'm sure you've worked for a few of them, too. If you're trapped in one of those businesses, trying to break out, I worry that you'll just get depressed. The book is great reading for businesspeople who already are thinking in terms of fostering creativity, but I wonder how much of the advice will be really NEW.
I absolutely enjoyed the book -- as much for the geeky nostalgia about what it took to create a gaming company in the 70s and 80s, when microcomputers were spawning a revolution. I think some of his ideas are great, and I hope your company adopts them. But even if it doesn't, you'll enjoy reading this.