Over the past few weeks I’ve been reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. In short, the book is phenomenal. Isaacson gives an intentionally evenhanded overview of Jobs’ successes, struggles, and bizarre personality quirks. From working in his garage with Steve Wozniak, to helping Apple ascend to the most valuable company in the world – it’s clear that the life of Steve Jobs was quite a journey.
In addition to the overt themes, which include Jobs’ compulsive need for control, occasional crying, theft of ideas from others, and overbearing charisma, the theme I found most interesting was how Jobs oversaw the development of new products. Whether it was the original Macintosh, the iPod, or Apple retail stores, it seemed like the road from idea to execution was always a rocky one. At one point in the book Jobs himself admits “everything he did correctly had required a moment when he hit the rewind button.”
Reading this one line made me stop and think about those little rewind moments that have occurred in my own life – when, mid-way through developing a new project, I found myself or my team running off the rails and losing direction. Ordinarily, I fight against these moments and try to stick with the original plan. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t. What Steve Jobs taught me is that when executing a new project you always have to be comfortable with two moments of chaos. The first moment of chaos is at the start of the project before you develop a strategic plan. The second moment of chaos comes after you’ve begun to execute your plan and you find yourself mid-way down the wrong path. These second moments of chaos are particularly unsettling for me – I have a very low tolerance for uncertainty – however, based on Jobs’ example it’s clear that these moments should be embraced as the hallmark of a project destined for success.
I would bet that nearly every successful project in history has found a moment mid-way through execution when a change of direction is required. However, upon re-telling, there is a tendency for people to omit these moments of uncertainty. In his book, Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson talks about the development of new ideas being a meandering path. Inventors rarely have the “ah-ha” moment that is depicted in the movies – rather, they think of new ideas over the course of many months or years, playing with the idea back and forth in their heads before arriving at their final innovation. Perhaps projects follow the same path, meandering to and fro until ending up in a successful state.
In either case, whether it’s a new idea or a new project – the key is to recognize the need for change and redirect quickly – embracing, rather than shunning, moments of uncertainty.