In 1985, at the age of 30, Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple computer, who had built the company from a startup in his garage into a billion dollar, Fortune 500 company, was forced out of the company he built. We all know that he was brought back as CEO to lead the then-struggling company to success as an innovation leader, creating the iPod, the iPhone and a host of other ground breaking products. Truly creative and innovative individuals can struggle at work. Regularly their talent isn’t recognized. Often they are not able to get others in the organization to see what they see.
So I sought advice from Nolan Bushnell as too how creative individuals can navigate the hurdles of championing new, and sometimes groundbreaking, ideas in organizations that may not immediately recognize the value of those ideas. Bushnell, the founder of Atari Corporation and author of “Finding the Next Steve Jobs,” is not only himself a technology pioneer but also has managed others great innovators, including Steve Jobs before he founded Apple.
According to Bushnell, Jobs did not “abide fools,” and as a result he had trouble getting along with many of his co-workers. Bushnell managed Jobs by “putting him on the engineering night shift.” In other words, he had Jobs work alone in the evenings so that he could pursue his innovative work without interference. Jobs got whatever help he needed from his friend Steve Wozniak, who didn’t work for Atari, but used to drop by at night to keep Jobs company.
Not every boss will recognize the value of a truly creative individual and be as accommodating as Bushnell. So his advice to would be innovators is to “be careful about where they choose to work.” Look for organizations, Bushnell suggests, that “are open to big ideas and out of the box thinking.” No matter how brilliant you are, it is unlikely that you will be able to change the organization. So find a company that is open to individuals willing to challenge the status quo.
When you find an organization that has the type of culture where you think you can thrive, Bushnell advises “being relentless” in pursuing that opportunity. “Don’t take no for an answer.” That type of organization will value your passion. Ask if you can work as an unpaid intern to show them what you can do if necessary, Bushnell suggests.
He points to his own son as an example of someone that has successfully employed this strategy. His son studied engineering as an undergraduate, but because he “minored in partying” he only earned mediocre grades. His son wanted to go to graduate school at UCLA but couldn’t get in based on his undergraduate record. So Bushnell suggested he go work for one of the professors there and get to know the people there. He did, and six months later he was admitted to graduate school.
Bushnell also proposes that, before you start pushing change as a new hire, seek to establish your own credibility. After you have earned the respect of the people you work with, they will be more open to listening to your ideas. Because he had not really applied himself mastering higher mathematics in college, in his first job out of school Bushnell struggled. So he worked really hard, and after work studied what he needed to learn at the company’s tech library. After six months he successfully completed the project he was working on, and had developed a reputation as somewhat of a “wunderkind,” when in fact he just worked as hard as he could until he got the job done.
Finally, Bushnell believes that would be innovators need to put aside their fears. “If your idea fails” he points out, “so what.” Prepare your boss for the possibility that your proposed innovation may not work exactly as you hope the first time out of the box, by laying out both the upside and the downside of implementing your idea. The downside risk is typically not so terrible, and can often be justified as a step on the way toward achieving ultimate success.” Bushnell notes that it is important to understand what does not work, in order to be able to develop a truly innovative solution that does.
If you want to be an innovator at work, you would do well also consider Steve Jobs’ advice. “Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. Most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.”
A veteran human resources executive, Lee E. Miller is a career coach and the author of “UP: Influence Power and the U Perspective — The Art of Getting What You Want.” Mail questions to Lee@employability-expert.com