Most people would kill for a job at either Apple or Google. Well, Ellen Leanse hasn’t killed anyone, and has worked with, and for, both companies.
At Google, Ellen served as the Head of Global Marketing and Communications. She was there during a time of rapid expansion, as Google made a large push for their applications. There, she applied her knowledge about building a movement and community around a product. The goal was to have people look at an idea and say “aha, that’s for me.” This, she says, is at the core of all product vision and business success.
Prior to joining Google, Ellen began her career at Apple. There, she was part of the original Macintosh launch team. She makes the important distinction that it was the Macintosh launch team, and not the product team. Hers is not one of the 100 names inside the Macintosh, though she does know many of them.
As part of the launch team, it was her responsibility to ensure that when the Macintosh was launched, there would be a number of available products to use with it.
Her greatest contribution, however, was helping to permanently change the way tech companies interacted with users.
Ellen explains that a number of users were upset with the launch of the Macintosh, and understandably so. They had invested in the Apple II, and were not ready for something as different as the Macintosh. They felt let down in product support and access to information.
The users were already getting together and having a discussion – which she admits included some Apple-bashing. And the lengths they went to – getting on Arpanet, printing out documents and mailing them to one another – were impressive. There was a definite sense of community. John Skulley, the CEO of Apple at the time, decided that Apple needed to participate more actively in that community. Ellen answered the call.
Initially, the idea of engaging with users in that way was met with strong resistance. It had never been done before at Apple, or any other company. She essentially approached the user community and asked if Apple could join in. The answer was yes, and Ellen set about setting a new precedent for customer interaction.
It really doesn’t take much to create an environment that allows for innovation, according to her. She says that if you’re able to see just one light ahead, a purpose in doing something, there is enough motivation to innovate. For her, it was seeing that existing online community at Apple. With only a sliver of support, it can be done. She boils it down to two simple ingredients: internal certainty, and a small sprinkle of external validation.
The Silicon Valley is known internationally as the Cradle of Innovation. Though it certainly earned that nickname, Ellen believes that it currently is suffering a glut of innovation. The problems being addressed aren’t as large or wide or significant as they have been in the past.
In her estimation, there is a disconnect between the innovation taking place and the problems that need solving.
She defines innovation as either the creation of a solution to a problem, or discovering a new way of addressing a problem. In order to innovate, you have to be paying attention. You can’t solve a problem that you don’t know exists. She recommends using “all of your intelligence and instincts to observe what happens.” Find what needs fixing, and trust in your ability to fix it. There’s a little “just do it” in there.
Part of the current issue is a fixation on profit instead of problem solving. If you pursue the latter, you will get the former, and it doesn’t work the other way around.
As part of the Apple launch team, Ellen worked with a man who knew this well: Steve Jobs.
Because she was relatively new, she had infrequent contact with him. Her first time meeting him was in a parking lot, as one was leaving and the other one going. She only made it within ten feet of him before being paralyzed by his “force field.” They spoke briefly, and she recalls feeling a sense of awe. She felt that sense again when he placed a paper on her desk that read: “how is the decision you’re making right now helping us ship the greatest personal computer the world has ever known on January 24, 1984?”
Jobs had what Ellen calls audacious vision, and unrelenting commitment to that goal. His ferocity is what sometimes led to the horror stories that have been told about his management style. Ellen was farther removed. She has nothing but praise for him, and is still in awe of him. She believes that the criticisms of him bring into question the role of a manager in innovation.
It’s difficult to manage innovation, and it certainly doesn’t happen with a group of people sitting around a table trying to invent the wheel. It happens through asking questions. And while it can’t be managed, it can be learned.
Innovation is recognizing a gap, and working towards closing that gap.
Like she said before, it’s solving a problem. Learning is, in a sense then, innovating. Teaching it is more difficult, but possible. Good teachers—and not just those in the educational system—impart wisdom, and inspire and expedite the process of finding a solution. But it’s just like any other subject. You can only teach those who genuinely want to be taught.
If you’re interested in learning more from Ellen Leanse, you can follow her on Twitter, at @Chep2m. If you’re wondering about her admittedly odd Twitter handle, know there’s a good reason. She explains it in the interview. Right now, she’s working with a friend from Apple on a number of new projects, as well as co-authoring a book. Her Twitter is the best place to stay up-to-date on everything she’s doing.
The takeaways for project managers:
- Innovation doesn’t require much; just internal certainty, and small sprinkle of external validation
- We’re currently experiencing a glut of innovation in Silicon Valley
- Pay attention to the problems that need solving
- Managing innovation is difficult to do, and can’t be forced
- Innovation can be learned, and taught, but only to those who are willing
- Steve Jobs wasn’t so bad after all