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Apple’s Steve Jobs had different approaches to new ideas. Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Apple’s Steve Jobs had different approaches to new ideas. Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

The culture of innovation

There is a lot that entrepreneurs can learn from painters, poets, film-makers and musicians

The day Steve Jobs died provided a moment of delicious irony. The protesters who had called for an angry occupation of Wall Street took a break from their fury against the billionaire crowd to tweet from expensive iPhones about their sense of loss at the passing of a man who was worth some $7 billion ( 38,710 crore now). Those billions did not seem to diminish Jobs’ popularity among the earnest people rallying against the rich.

Jobs often argued that innovation would require a blend of technology and the liberal arts, and education systems should encourage such pollination rather than focus on narrow specialization. He took calligraphy classes at university, and said they gave him the insight required to design the beautiful typography that is now part of most personal computers.

Perhaps less well known is Norio Ohga, one of the inventors of the CD and the man who succeeded the legendary Akio Morita as chairman of Sony in 1994. Ohga read music at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, and was hired by Sony after he sent a letter to its top management pointing out various defects in their tape recorders. His blend of musical skills and technological understanding also led to his backing of the Sony PlayStation console.

The likes of Jobs and Ohga may be considered rarities, but there is a lot that entrepreneurs can learn from painters, poets, film-makers and musicians.

T.S. Eliot was only 29 when he wrote his greatest poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, while Robert Frost wrote one of his most anthologized poems, Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening, when he was 48. Orson Welles made Citizen Kane when he was 26, while Alfred Hitchcock made Vertigo when he was 59. Pablo Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, his first major Cubist work, when he was 26, while Paul Cezanne painted his Château Noir when he was 64. Wolfgang Mozart composed The Marriage of Figaro at the age of 30, while Ludwig van Beethoven composed Symphony No. 9 at the age of 54.

They were all great creative minds, but some did their best work at a young age while the others did so at a much later stage in their lives.

The University of Chicago economist David Galenson has spent several years studying these two patterns of human creativity. He divides artists into two groups: the Young Geniuses who do their best work early in their careers and the Old Masters who improve with age. He also calls them the conceptual innovators and experimental innovators.

There are important differences between these two groups—their approach, their style of work, their quest. “Experimental innovators seek to record their perceptions. They work tentatively, by trial and error. The impression of their goals rarely allows them to feel they have succeeded, as they often have trouble finishing individual works, and generally spend their careers pursuing a single objective. They build their skills gradually, and their innovations appear incrementally in a body of work. In contrast, conceptual innovators use their art to express ideas or emotions. Their goals are precise, so they plan their works, and execute them systematically. Their innovations are conspicuous, transgressive, and often irreverent," Galenson explained in a paper.

Galenson has used statistical methods to calculate the peak period in the life cycle of a creative person. For example, he trawled through anthologies to see whether a poem was written at the beginning of a career or the end. He checked the catalogues of the retrospectives of famous painters in art galleries. He has tracked auction prices. He polled film critics to understand the aesthetic value of various films. He then classified his subjects into Old Masters and Young Geniuses.

Economists have become more aware of the role of human creativity in our economic lives. Poor countries can grow quickly by using more resources such as land, labour and capital. But there comes a time when countries have to become more dependent on innovation. And innovation needs entrepreneurs who are ready to jump into the unknown and a culture that supports them in this mad quest.

“In view of the enormous importance of innovation, we might naturally assume that economists would devote a great deal of attention to understanding the methods these extraordinary individuals use to produce their discoveries: how artists create masterpieces, how medical scientists develop vaccines and treatments for diseases, how scholars devise new methods of inquiry and analysis, how engineers and entrepreneurs create new technologies and products," Galenson wrote in a paper published in 2010.

Galenson has studied the great cultural innovators. But companies can be separated into two similar categories as well—those which overturn the world and those which make it more efficient. Apple is like Picasso while Dell is like Cézanne, as journalist Malcolm Gladwell has proposed. We could add some more possibilities. Silicon Valley is like Mozart while Bangalore is like Beethoven. The US is like Eliot while Japan is like Frost. Then there are the crossovers, or companies that became innovative. Samsung is a case in point. It was a lumbering giant that metamorphosed into a cool consumer technology company after it almost went bankrupt during the Asian economic crisis of 1997.

Jobs was quintessentially the conceptual innovator. Sam Walton of Wal-Mart could be thought to be an experimental innovator. Both were tremendous businessmen who changed the world for the better. But is there any doubt that it is the former—and his type—that wins more public sympathy?

This story was first published on 2 June 2012. It has been republished due to a technical issue.

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