Steve Wozniak talks innovation at World Business Forum

The Apple co-founder took the stage in Hong Kong along with authors Sarah Lewis and Tom Peters.

Steve Wozniak (left): speaks at the World Business Forum
Steve Wozniak (left): speaks at the World Business Forum

Steve Wozniak left Apple for good in 1985 because its increasingly bureaucratic processes were hampering his ability to create innovation, he told delegates last week at the World Business Forum in Hong Kong.

Wozniak said: "I was the self-made engineer of Apple. They left me out of the business because I preferred it that way. But there came a time when the company had grown fairly large and the managers started getting engineers to write step-by-step documentation for everything they did and why.

"It was hard to invent and to do work, and it wasn’t my style. I would just walk in and make something. I like startup environments."

Innovators and inventors, he said, usually come from the type of background – one that doesn’t include being a trained engineer. "They are builders, makers, working independently," Wozniak said. "That's important. They need to be allowed to come up with their own ideas and not be hounded by the bureaucracy of the company.

It is processes like this though, designed to minimize failure, that truly stifle innovation, agreed two other speakers at the conference: Sarah Lewis, the author, curator and historian, and Tom Peters, the management guru, speaker and author.

Companies must accept that failure is a necessary part of the learning process and without it, innovation cannot take place. "Companies who don't continue to experiment and who don't embrace failure get to a desperate position where the only thing they can do is try something extreme," Peters said.

The single stupidest sentence ever uttered in the English language, Peters added, is "do it right the first time" because it eliminates the ability for anyone to attempt anything new.

Which is not to say that companies should abandon the products that are currently making them money in order to chase rainbows, said Wozniak. "As a big company you gotta keep that money wheel moving," he conceded. "Whatever's bringing in the money, keep that going. But have a department whose job is to look for new markets."

What Blackberry should have done when the iPhone launched, he commented, was to set up a separate company dedicated to working on touchscreen smartphones. "But they didn’t because at the time, it wasn’t going to affect their keyboard phone for a while. The truth is, though, even if the competition isn’t likely to hurt your bottom line for the next five years, if you think what they’ve got is catching on, you have to be there."

Companies can get so attached to their way or process of doing things that it can completely hinder their ability to innovate.

When Wozniak was working with Hewlett Packard, the company’s main product was the scientific calculator. "They were so popular they cost $2,000 of today’s money," he recalled. "But they were also so complicated to use, requiring that formulas be entered using reverse Polish notation (RPN). It was actually their hallmark – HP claimed it made the calculators more powerful."

Then, Texas Instruments introduced the SR-50, a calculator that pioneered the use of parentheses and allowed formulas to be entered as they were written. "We laughed at it, we said it was a toy," he said. "We had this huge formula we were trying to solve, and I said I’d try solving it with a Texas Instruments [calculator]. At first, it was so hard to work out how to do the formula in RPN that I couldn’t. Then I thought, fine. I’ll just type it in as it is. And it worked. First time."

Wozniak sat back and watched his colleagues all struggle to translate that formula into RPN because they simply could not divorce themselves from the idea that doing so was necessary. "Corporate culture was in the way," he laughed ruefully.

A characteristic shared by creative masters, according to Lewis, whose book The Rise seeks to redefine the place of failure in the creative process, is the ability to choose to be "deliberate amateurs." That choice allows innovators to see problems "in the raw, with fresh eyes," she said.

One surefire way to keep the blinkers on, Peters said, is to surround yourself with people who think the same. "If you want to study the absence of diversity, look at the board of directors of a major company," he said. "At its core, every hiring decision is a decision to innovate or not."

Wozniak echoed this. He was a loyal HP employee but left to co-found Apple with Steve Jobs after HP rejected his ideas for a colour-capable computer that could play games. "To HP, computers were entirely business," he said. "They weren’t meant to be fun."

To help build innovation into your company, said Peters, hire diversely. Hire women, he said, and people who are interesting, who have curiosity and broad passion. "Because to be innovative in 2015 … if you have 130 employees, you need 130 people innovating for you."

People who continually succeed at creativity and innovation, said Lewis, also share another similar trait. They try and try again, with grit. Not to just succeed once, but to succeed repeatedly and with ever-increasing success. "Mastery isn’t perfection; it’s a curved line of pursuit, a constant autocorrect," she said. "Because it is the near-win, the ‘almost’ that drives them on."

Even in high school, Wozniak would challenge himself weekly to design an ever-better computer, beating HP’s own designs. "It was a game to me, but one day I realised that no one in the whole world could do what I could with computers."

Of course, improving means understanding what makes something better. Lewis underscored the need for "flexible grit." To have determination to continue but to be able to adapt and redirect down different paths when necessary. "To ensure grit does not become dysfunctional persistence."

One source of insights and ideas for Wozniak was sales. "It's so important. I went on as many sales calls as I could because that information is so important. Marketing often helps in finding out what people need. Of course, marketing can fail there too. We have had a lot of failures at Apple. Some of it was stupid mistakes by marketing urging us to take out functions that consumers wanted."

Peters shared another example. Starbucks chief executive Howard Schultz, he said, makes a point of visiting at least 25 outlets a week. "Because it doesn’t matter how many terabytes of data he has. Ultimately, Starbucks is about one barista selling coffee to one customer."

This article first appeared on


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