Leading Blog






01.13.09

The Block of Wood That Became the First Sony Walkman

In The Illusion of Leadership, Piers Ibbotson explains the difference between the creative and the managerial style of leadership. “Creative leadership thinks as it works. One of the fundamentals of the creative style is that you have a leader who can frame the task so that the led will be delighted to attack it and bring their imaginations with them as they do….you cannot define in detail the outcome. He cites the following example of the development of the Sony Walkman:
Walkman 1979The CEO goes down to the research labs where all the eggheads are working. He gathers them round and he pulls out of his shirt pocket a small block of wood. He holds it up and he says: “Make me a tape-player this big.” He puts it down on the table and he leaves.

This is good constraint. It is concrete and specific. The guys can pick it up and start measuring. They can respond immediately and the challenge focuses them immediately in the right direction.

But this is really such a good constraint because of what it not said:
  • He did not say “Make me the smallest tape-recorder you can.” (They’d still be at it.)
  • He did not say “Make me a small portable tape player.” (They might come up with something just to big to fit in your shirt pocket.)
  • He did not say “Make something new and revolutionary that will let people play music wherever they want.” (No point in encouraging them to reinvent the wheel.)
  • He did not email them a set of specifications. (How would they tell he cared about the outcome?)
He went there in person; he gave a controlled and gnomic performance in front of the people who would be doing the work. He left plenty of space for them to imagine, invent and innovate but within concrete and specific boundaries that he personally communicated. He had a partial vision of the desired outcome, but he had no idea how it would finally turn out.

He did not give them a target to hit; he gave them a field to play in.

Posted by Michael McKinney at 08:55 AM
| Comments (0) | Creativity & Innovation



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