The benefits of death

Sep 02 2005 by Max McKeown Print This Article

Steve Jobs, founder of iPod-producing Apple, Toy Story-creating Pixar and kinda-sorta Web-facilitating NeXT operating system (used by Tim Berners-Lee in Switzerland to develop the conceptual basis for world wide web in 1991), gave a talk at Stanford University recently to welcome new students and to share with them three stories that have since been circulated widely.

The first story tells of his adoption as a baby and his decision to drop out of an expensive college to avoid spending all of his adopted working class parents' hard-earned life savings. Instead, he spend 18 months "dropping in" on classes while sleeping on college friends' floors.

During this period, he said that he acquired "dots of knowledge" that his life, when viewed retrospectively, has been joining ever since.

The second story shares how he found the love of his working life, Apple, built it into a $2billion company, and was then kicked out by his own directors. All by the time he was 30 years old Ė just 262,800 hours into his life spent becoming a technology-changing billionaire with another 600,000 or so hours left to decide what to do with the rest of his life.

Happily, life led to Pixar, NeXT and meeting his wife.

The third, and final, story, involved Steve following the counsel to "live each day as though it was his last" and the day when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and told that it was incurable. By the end of the day he had mentally rearranged many priorities but later learned that the cancer was a rare form that was operable.

Steve then made the statement that "death is very likely the single best invention of life. It's life's change agent; it clears out the old to make way for the new."

So how true is this? Is our knowledge of impending death likely to make us do more with our lives? Is it nature's way of simply creating those, "dead men's shoes" for living men to fill?

It might seem tempting to think that way as heir to a Murdoch or Windsor dynasty, for whom a new chapter in life begins when the life of a parent ends. And yet what benefit has come of the deaths of the thousand people trampled to death in the stampede in Iraq, the thousands drowned in New Orleans, or the hundreds of thousands swept away by the Asian Tsunami?

In the case of the Tsunami, some have proffered answers. One was offered by Simon Elegant, writing in Time magazine. He explained how Aceh, a special territory of Indonesia on the northern tip of the island of Sumatra, has suffered from the conflict between the Indonesia military and a local separatists for more than three decades. But on the 15th August, a peace deal was signed because of it seemed impossible for both sides to, "carry on fighting when our people were suffering".

So now, Simon argues, as a result of 230,000 people who died last December, the remaining 4 million inhabitants of Aceh can live in peace.

But is progress always the unavoidable choice to be made? How strong is the evidence that we achieve more when under pressure and when the alternatives to improvement are bleak?

The Samsung citizens would have us believe that it works. Their CEO, 61 year old engineer Jong-Yong Yun, preaches the gospel of what he calls "perpetual crisis" where the aim is to make urgent innovation seem necessary every single day.

Samsung has a location, the Value Innovation Programme (VIP) house where engineers are housed, "until they have solved their project's problems". Weekly pronouncements of a "world's first" or the "world's biggest" are the result, Samsung argues of monthly exhortations that they are at the crossroads between being "a world leader or a major failure".

This perpetual state of impending, even immediate crisis allows Samsung to start now. And since the reason for most delay is 'not starting' - the so-called 'student syndrome', or leaving things until the last possible minute - starting now is a major advantage.

It allows Samsung to do the right thing - what they term "sincere management" - like investing 9 per cent of revenues and 40 per cent of employees into R&D while competitors are thinking about how to avoid doing the right thing as long as possible.

This is a challenge of which GE are painfully aware. Founded by Thomas Edison, GE needs innovation to grow and that means, according to Beth Comstock, the company's Innovation Champion, "doing things differently rather than simply making no mistakes".

You can't have a process for everything. Some of this has to be felt, experienced, and embraced
She explained to me how anthropologists and artists have been brought into the company to try and help it's hard working, pedal-to-the-metal management "feel the difference" between innovation and production, to help them find the courage it takes to make a fool out of yourself and the discipline to find new answers when none have previously existed.

"We were surprised to find," she says, "that it's a cultural thing. You can't have a process for everything. Some of this has to be felt, experienced, and embraced. Culturally and individually we have to find ways of making those changes seem necessary."

GE and Samsung are going to a lot of trouble to make improvement seem necessary. People, it seems, need some reason to make tough choices. Organisations, comprised as they are of people, find it even harder to make progress without knowing that they "have to", and will usually wait until a real crisis comes along before getting on with the hard stuff that is essential to moving forward.

Organisations even reject messengers of crises. Cisco did just that recently when it insisted that a researcher working for Internet Security Systems be fired for sharing details of a flaw in its Internet routers when he felt that the company was ignoring the problem.

As he explained, "They're trying to intimidate and scare me, and I'll be honest it's working a little bit, but not enough. People who know me will tell you I have a long history of not being afraid of people I should."

These kind of individuals are just the kind to promote a crisis that will lead to necessary change and, equally, the first to be closed down by those who are too fearful, or protective, to allow the changes to happen. Until, of course, they die.

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About The Author

Max McKeown
Max McKeown

Max McKeown works as a strategic adviser for four of the five most admired companies in the world. He is a well-known speaker on subjects including innovation and competitive advantage. His latest book, #NOW: The Surprising Truth About the Power of Now, was published in July 2016.