If You Were the Next Steve Jobs…

If You Were the Next Steve Jobs…

…what problems would you try to solve?

Let me answer that by telling you a story.

Every writer will tell you: first, find a good café. And while I was hunched over my laptop in one my favorite tiny cafes in London — the estimable Kaffeine, purveyors of some of the best coffee I’ve had the privilege to have — something tiny, yet remarkable, happened.

After a few days, James, the barista, noticed that I’d come in, order a flat white, write like a man possessed for an hour or so — but never finish my coffee. He asked me why, and I replied that I espresso leaves me too wired to write, but paradoxically, I always need a little. Without missing a beat, James simply proceeded to create an entirely new drink for me, on the spot: a mini flat-white, which he half-jokingly named after me.

Now, this might sound entirely trivial. Until you ask yourself: how often, despite billions spent on “service,” “creativity,” “innovation,” “changing the game,” “motivation,” “leadership,” and assorted other magical buzzword-incantations, has something like the preceding happened to you, anywhere — ever? My bet is: outside of a truly excellent bar, almost nowhere, probably never.

Imagine, for a moment, that you (yes, you) were the next Steve Jobs: what would your (real) challenges be? I’d bet they wouldn’t be scale (just call FoxConn), efficiency (call FoxConn’s consultants), short-term profitability (call FoxConn’s consultants’ bankers), or even “growth” (call FoxConn’s consultants’ bankers’ lobbyists). Those are the problems of yesterday — and today, here’s the thing: we largely know how to solve them.

Whether you’re an assiduous manager, a chin-stroking economist, a superstar footballer, or a rumpled artist, here’s the unshakeable fact: you don’t get to tomorrow by solving yesterday’s problems.

To solve today’s set of burning problems, you just might have to build new institutions, capable of handling stuff a little something like this…

Singularity. Scale is a solved problem. We know how to do stuff at very, very large scale — if by stuff you mean “churning out the same widget, a billion times over”. What we don’t know how to do is the opposite of scaling up: scaling down an institution, to make a difference to a human life. Lives are singular; and for institutions to truly matter in human terms, they must go beyond the homogeneous, to the singular.

Consider: Starbucks will make your coffee to their specifications (extra-hot triple venti soy latte with caramel!). That’s just the same car, with a different color scheme. What James made for me at Kaffeine was a coffee deftly, expertly created to make a tiny, slight, yet very real difference to my life, on the spot. Now that’s singularity.

Sociality. Through Kaffeine’s singularity, I feel a little special. Like while I might not have a full-blown relationship with them — and perhaps they with me — yet, we’re surely in something resembling the advanced dating stage of the courtship ritual.

Now consider: there’s rarely a complaint I hear more often from the besuited John Galts of capitalism’s less-than-glorious present than the fist-banging “Wait. We have a Twitter account — but we still don’t really have relationships with people!” You don’t say. I mean, think about it for a moment: is it any surprise? Imagine you came home, and your robo-clone-partner-bot dully read you the same canned script they were also reading about a million other people at exactly the same time, in exactly the same words. Would you call that a “relationship”? I’d call it, for anyone not a gawping rube, a “sham.” Relationships happen between human people — not between corporate “people” and human people, and definitely not between brain-eating zombies and human people. So if it’s relationships you want, then you’re going to have to ask people to connect with people — not just “greet,” “check-out,” “analyze,” “reward,” or “inspire.”

Spontaneity. So what did it take for Kaffeine’s barista to offer to make me — the slightly awkward dude in combat boots hanging out in the corner for the last few weeks working furiously on his next book — a coffee that wasn’t just “mine”, but designed to improve, at a tiny level, my life? Consider: James wasn’t getting a big bonus, a company award-cum-paperweight, or stock options: the stock answers in trade of management gurus who wish to “motivate” worker drones. So what was James getting? Perhaps something like the joy of accomplishment or the fun of the challenge — prizes that money, in point of fact, can’t buy. And he could pursue those higher-order rewards — and in the pursuit of those rewards, create something singularly worthwhile for me — because, simply, vitally, he was free to do so. At most McStitutions, the idea that a “valued team member” would be free to act sans script, formula, or routine, is about as likely as the idea that you’re really a giant pink inflatable Godzilla named “Marmaduke.” Look, think about it this way: every internet dating profile in the world begs for some spontaneity — not just because it’s exciting, but because formula never led anywhere but to the same old stale, yawn-inducing answer: the one you probably broke up with last month. Spontaneity is the act of human potential unfurling in the moment — and if it’s human potential you wish to ignite, then it’s spontaneity you need to spark.

Synchronicity. One common misinterpretation of management theory goes thus: pit your best people against one another, like dogs in a fight, and the wondrous power of “competition” will unleash vital energies heretofore unseen in the history of great endeavor. Taking a hard look at the organizations that practice this style of management-by-Mordor, my guess is that the unbridled exaltation of aggression is more like the express train to Sociopath City. Just look at investment banks.

In point of fact, what distinguishes organizations that achieve enduring greatness is teamwork and collaboration — and those are words so overused, they make my teeth ache just saying them. Here’s my bet: it’s time to drop the fourth wall of the “team” — and go beyond collaboration, to something like what Jung called synchronicity: a kind of uncanny intersection of seemingly unrelated lives. At Kaffeine, I became something more than a customer, and something more like a team member: the barista wasn’t working “for” me, to dully serve up another tedious, formulaic, McCoffee: he was, working with me, to craft a coffee that benefitted me not just in the sense that I needed a shot of caffeine, but in real human terms; a mini-coffee that fit the fact that I needed a tiny jolt to finish my book — and in that moment, we were were synced up; on the “same team”, so to speak; not just slack-jawed “consumer” at odds with distant, aloof (or perhaps unscrupulous, read-the-fine-print-of-the-fine-print) “producer.”

Solubility. But the biggest lesson — and the one hidden in plain sight — is this: creating institutions capable of not just solving the same old problems, forever. All too often, I hear the furious debate of problems already long-ago solved. Consider the curious case of profitability. Little is more intensely, heatedly discussed in boardrooms — but the truth is that profits have never been higher, both in real terms or as a share of GDP. Profit is a solved problem: we know, to a pretty good approximation, how to make companies profitable (at least in the short run, for the benefit of shareholders, often to the detriment of, well, everyone and everything else). Now, I don’t mean that you, the struggling entrepreneur, face no challenges — but I do mean that having read a few books, spoken to a few mentors, and crunched a few numbers, probably have a shot at applying a set of well-worn lessons that, should the fates smile on you, lead you to the promised land of profitability.

This is also true at the very micro and the very macro level. For instance, we know how to run a meeting, but as any office worker will tell you, instances of effectively run meetings are vanishingly scarce. To take a very macro, economy-wide example, look at productivity. Though it’s often still hotly debated hither and thither, the truth is that (simple) productivity, like profitability, is something like a solved problem. Work fewer people harder, with faster, smarter robots — and hey, presto: productivity. And that seems to be, sometimes, our entirely inadequate recipe for national prosperity — one destined to doom the middle class to even more striking levels of hardship and penury.

James, remarkably, was solving an unsolved problem. No one had ever made me the perfect coffee before — otherwise, I probably would’ve simply asked for it. Nor was he simply assuming that by brewing up a triple-venti-etc, he’d “solved” the problem of a coffee made not just for me — but for me.

So I’d suggest perhaps the greatest challenge for tomorrow’s would-be problem-solver renegades is this: building institutions that don’t keep solving the same old solved problems, like profitability, scale, efficiency, productivity, and the like. Over and over again, like algorithms of human organization run amok. Institutions that are capable of taking a hard look at unsolved problems around the globe — as big as climate change, sending humans to Mars, and redesigning the global financial system, and as small as Umair’s perfect coffee — and then accepting the difficult, often painful, always fulfilling, work of attempting to solve them. Call this property, if you like, “solubility.” You know how our political parties are “debating”…pretty much exactly what they were in 1980? That’s insolubility: institutions stuck, like glue, on the same old (readily solvable) problems — instead of looking unflinchingly into the unresolved, hazy future, and resolutely pioneering it.

Sure — it might seem laughably preposterous to read the future of prosperity into the creamy foam topping an Umair (hey, that’s what my coffee’s called, remember?). Yet, if the question is “Where do tomorrow’s institutions come from?” my answer is: from today’s pioneers. Go ahead and burn me at the stake, but I’d advance the heretical idea that yes, even a humble barista just might be light-years ahead of our so-called visionary leaders when it comes to the art of reimagining the epic facepalm of a fail that you and I currently call the status quo. You don’t get to tomorrow by solving yesterday’s problems, over and over and ov — remember Einstein’s definition of insanity? “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

So let me put it this way. Steve — that Steve — the buttoned-down John Sculley, then CEO of PepsiCo, thus: “Do you want to sell sugar-water for the rest of your life — or do you want to come with me and change the world?” Let me, to draw out the lesson of James’s parable, revise Steve’s question, dare you thus: “Do you want to spend the rest of your life making the metaphorical equivalent of triple-venti-soy-latte-chinos, forever — or do you want to build an institution fit for a future worth fighting for?”

NB. Let’s not turn this into a for-and against Apple discussion. Sure, one can take difference with Apple’s labour issues and platform strategy. If you’d like to, then your answer to my question might be: “If I was the next Steve Jobs, I’d introduce living wages and open up everything everywhere — because tomorrow’s institutions …”


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