How to innovate (and how not to), part 2: Follow the word of God

Where does innovation come from? And which method works best? Jihee Junn continues her look at the many and varied approaches to innovation in the second part of a new series.

Method 2: Follow the word of God

No exploration of the mystical aura of innovation is complete without Steve Jobs, the late Apple CEO who commanded a presence and following unlike any other entrepreneur of our time. But beyond the gloss of space grey iPhones and black turtlenecks was a man of unwavering ruthlessness, self-belief and sense of infallibility, often referred to as the God Complex (or, in more casual offices, HiPPO, which stands for ‘highest paid person’s opinion’).

No-one encapsulated the creative essence of Silicon Valley better than Jobs, but he also represented the worst of the tech hub's teeming megalomania. In the 2015 film Steve Jobs, Michael Fassbender’s Jobs is arguing with engineer Andy Hertzfeld about a software flaw. “You had three weeks,” Jobs (or, at least, Aaron Sorkin's version of him) says. “The universe was created in a third of that time,” to which Hertzfeld retorts, “Well, someday you’ll have to tell us how you did it”.

Job’s managerial approach often riled his coworkers, but, in part, it was the fuel to his visionary innovations (and, occasionally, it created a strong loyalty among staff members). He felt it his duty to make society a better place, and gave consumers the things they didn’t even know they needed.

But such demanding behaviour can have negative consequences, too. It affects sickness rates, team morale and mental health, which, in turn, can stifle creativity and innovation. Rather than being the reason for his success, Jobs is sometimes said to have succeeded in spite of – rather than because of – his leadership approach. In a sense, innovation is like a superpower, but with such power also comes great hubris. Because once you believe you have superhuman abilities, or that you are “bestowing superhumanity on the rest of the world”, you tend to believe in your own infallibility.

Elizabeth Holmes also wanted to change the world. She adorned the headquarters of her company, Theranos, with idealistic slogans (“One tiny drop changes everything”), and claimed the technology it was developing could diagnose hundreds of health problems with just a prick of a finger. For a while, it seemed like she really could change the world. She had become the youngest woman ever to become a self-made billionaire and the media were more than happy to deify her. They compared her to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, and Holmes made no secret of who she revered most, adopting the quirky habits, secretive techniques and black turtlenecks of Jobs’ late reign.

But, unlike Apple’s consumer products or Facebook’s social network, Theranos’ biotechnology was a matter of life and death and therefore subject to Silicon Valley’s nemesis: regulation (the cliché 'move fast and break things' takes on new meaning when those ‘things’ are your health). In the end, that was what made Theranos – and Holmes’ permeating God Complex – so perilous and misguided in the first place. Because, after months of hype and reverence, it turned out Theranos’ life-saving technology was a sham. She had defied scientific method and the advice of outside experts, and fortressed Theranos with a thick fog of secrecy. Holmes’ narrative was what Theranos investors lapped up, enabling the company to expand unchecked and unscrutinised. She secured millions in funding, but only on the condition that she would not have to divulge to investors (at least one of whom is now suing the company) how her technology worked, and that she had final say and control over every aspect of her company. Like the story of Icarus, Holmes flew too close to the sun, and her descent to Earth has been cruel and prompt.

So, with Jack Dorsey’s return to Twitter as CEO, are we seeing the God complex come to the fore again? When Dorsey was pushed out as CEO in 2008, he was reported to have been difficult to work with, rarely communicated with the board and had a distracting array of outside hobbies. From that point on, things began to change. According to Hatching Twitter by Nick Bilton, Dorsey began planting stories about how he’d founded Twitter, invented the product and was the sole visionary architect behind it. In 2010, Dorsey founded Square and – much like Holmes – began echoing elements of Steve Jobs, in both fashion and vocabulary. Jobs, after all, was also pushed out of the company he co-founded, launched new companies thereafter, and continued to run one of them (Pixar) when he returned to Apple, something Dorsey is now doing with Twitter and Square. That image as a visionary is why investors brought Dorsey back to Twitter. They need more new users and to do that, they need someone to reboot the ten-year-old service that's become stale and stagnant. One year into his return, whether the decision was a right one is still up for debate.

Idealog’s official rating: 3/10 – Low percentage play, typically expensive legal bills for HR issues, but big potential rewards.

Method 1: Wait for the eureka moment