Think Different

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Advertising that breaks through the cacophony is rare.


Every now and then, something truly special happens. Apple Computer did just that with their infamous 1984 ad announcing the Macintosh. It ran just once during the super bowl.

VO: On January 24 Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh, and you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like 1984.

That ad was created by Chiat/Day under the watchful eye of Steve Jobs. It’s often cited as the best television ad ever made. To do that once is amazing, to do it twice … well … a little more than a dozen years later, they did it again.

In the summer of 1997 Apple ended a leadership drought by rehiring Steve Jobs as CEO. Steve had been ousted in 1985 and his return marked a rebirth for the company. He immediately set about restructuring the product line and refocusing the marketing. Within two months he and Chiat/Day again teamed up to create Think Different, a stunning marketing campaign that again lit the world on fire.

Steve Jobs: While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.

The ad ends with the colorful Apple logo and simply the words Think Different.

Fittingly the ad first ran on September 28 of that year during the rebirth of the iconic Wonderful World of Disney program. That night the show featured the network television premiere of Toy Story, made by Job’s own Pixar. The Think Different ad ran twice.

On a side note for the grammar obsessed listeners, Chiat/Day tried to convince Steve that it should be Think Differently. He insisted on the pithier adjective form. He liked its cadence.

Apple blanketed the world with the Think Different campaign. It ran on TV and radio, on the back of magazines and newspapers, it was plastered on billboards and murals, they even painted whole busses and trains with it. The campaign lasted for over five years and helped relaunch the company into the juggernaut it is today.

In the last episode I talked about how the “not just a job” tagline highlighted the problems as companies struggle with diversity and inclusion. This time, the solution lies in this tagline: think different. And that’s what this is all about.

This is Leading Smart, the show about Managing in the Brainpower Age. It’s a field guide to the joys and challenges of leading and working in the modern workplace. I’m Chris Williams, your guide to the stories and ideas that I hope will inspire you to be a better leader in the world of knowledge work.

In this episode we’ll look at how diversity of thought changes the way you lead. This is Episode 208 – Think Different.

Write what you know. It’s a sentiment about writing often attributed to Mark Twain. Even though its origin is uncertain, it remains pretty good advice. To get the most authentic characters, the most nuanced view, the most vivid storytelling, a good place to start is to write about things you have lived.

Hollywood certainly agrees. Many outstanding films are about the industry and Los Angeles. Sunset Boulevard, Singing in the Rain, The Player, and any of the several remakes of A Star is Born all reflect the industry. And many more are set in LA like Mulholland Drive, LA Confidential, Chinatown, and of course Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. It seems some of Hollywood’s best work comes when the subject is close to home.

It works in business as well. In Silicon Valley they call this “scratching your own itch”. Startups are often founded by people who see an issue personally, and solve it with an app. It’s been this way since the dawn of commerce. Someone sees a problem in their own life, they think “other people must have this problem too”, and they start a business.

And yet, it’s not a firm and fast rule. George Lucas hasn’t flown into outer space, Stephen King hasn’t slaughtered people, and JK Rowling is certainly a muggle. But to work from your base of experience is nonetheless good advice. I try to do it here on this podcast. I believe the perspective I offer, from my experience in the world of leadership, rings true.

On the other hand, working only from your own perspective can cause myopia. A classic example is the icon for America Online’s mail program. It was the rural mailbox designed in 1915 by US postal carrier Roy Joroleman. You know the one, shaped like a tunnel featuring a rounded top with a flat bottom, front, and back. The one with the red flag on the side. To AOL it seemed ubiquitous and a perfect icon for “You’ve Got Mail!”. Except no one who lived in the city had ever seen one, they all had mail slots. Nor had anyone in most of the rest of the world where mailboxes had a variety of shapes. Huge portions of their users had no idea what the icon meant. While AOL and others eventually moved on from that icon, virtually every email program today is represented by an envelope or a stamp. Two items many people born in this century have never personally used.

We had a version of this myopia at Microsoft, frequently mistaking ourselves for our customer. We designed many programs firm in the belief that we mirrored the average user. “That seems clear to me” we’d say, “of course you’d click on this first.” Until you put it in the hands of a real user, and they got completely lost. Our product usability testing team heard it from engineers all the time. “What kind of a person would do that?” Turns out pretty much any anyone without a computer science degree…

Another way this myopia appears is in a “reality distortion field”. It’s one of the red flags I discuss in my famous “Is Your Project Out of Control?” memo. A reality distortion field is where you are so convinced that the project is on the correct path, that you manipulate your view of the real world to conform. “Of course, we’re right. Everyone will want this.” We saw it a lot at Microsoft, Steve Jobs was frequently accused of it, and it’s an all too common problem.

This sort of myopia worms its way into many organizations and becomes the stuff of corporate legend. Kodak had a digital camera in 1977 decades ahead of others but ignored it to focus on their film business. Blockbuster had a virtual monopoly on movie rentals and dismissed Netflix as niche player. Examples are everywhere.

And yet, when you manage to break free of the silo, brilliant things happen. Another famously misattributed quote says that before the Model T, all anyone wanted was faster horses. Maybe Henry Ford didn’t say it, but it’s not wrong. Until the word processor, if you asked office workers what they wanted, it was a better typewriter. And no one wanted a phone without a keyboard. Until Apple thought different.

To combat this myopia, to break out of a reality distortion field, takes a variety of perspectives. Ask customers what they want, of course, but also understand who they are and what they need. You have to see and hear from outside the box. That’s how you don’t just think out of the box, but you reinvent the box, or to question whether the box is necessary at all.

If AOL had people from a variety of backgrounds in the room, they would have questioned that mail icon. If Blockbuster CEO John Antioco had been able to think outside his legendary career of building retail stores, he might have recognized the Netflix challenge before it swamped them.

The only effective way to escape the myopia is to have people at the table who in fact think different. At Microsoft we worked hard to hire unconventionally, especially in product design roles. We hired psychology, foreign language, comparative literature, or even philosophy majors into technical positions. We’d look for intelligence, passion, drive, creativity, not necessarily technical experience. The goal was people who would bring fresh ideas, and a new perspective. This is not uncommon; many companies look to hire creative thinkers who can think different.

And yet, further examination reveals more, perhaps subtler, myopia. When most are asked what diversity of opinion looks like, they think of people with different interests, different hobbies, maybe even different political views. They think different. But not very different.

The critical juncture is at hiring time when managers envision their team. They reflexively want people who look like them. Because they can relate to them. They want people who went to the same schools as them. Because they have a shared experience. People who came from similar backgrounds. Because they want people who’ll “fit in”. People who can relate to the team culture. Because they will “hit the ground running”.

The end result is that they hire a lot of clones of themselves. Smart clones, to be sure. Maybe even some clones who can truly think out of the box and be disruptive. But clones nonetheless.

Most managers don’t hire this way with overt intention. And they aren’t specifically wrong. They certain can relate better to the clones, and the clones will certainly fit in better. But they won’t bring any new perspectives, and they won’t challenge them or the status quo. They won’t really think different.

It’s all the rage today to be the disrupter. To “shake things up”. You can see the glee in the grin of business leaders as they relish being troublemakers. They enjoy being the rabble-rouser who makes life difficult for the established competitors. These leaders want and even court chaos and mayhem.

Except when they look around the room. They want diversity of thought, as long as it looks interesting to me. They want people to challenge ideas, but in a way that I like and respect. They want different ideas, but just only so different. Don’t go crazy on me. They want different perspectives, but don’t challenge my world view. They welcome different kinds of people, sure, but please avoid the “hot button” issues of race and gender.

Diversity of ideas comes from all directions. Diversity of ideas sometimes is hard to hear. It even hurts. Diversity of ideas is best when it’s unexpected, when it’s truly “out of the box”.

Getting that kind of view comes from people who don’t just WANT to see things differently. It doesn’t come from people who need to read about or imagine another viewpoint. It comes from people who’ve lived an entirely different life, with an entirely different perspective. That’s why you need to not just think outside the box but hire outside the box as well. To think different, you have to hire different.

I’ll be the first to tell you I struggle with this. I have to steel myself to hear truly hard feedback. I have to think carefully when I hear a genuinely “out there” idea. Like most people, I find it easier to relate to people who look like me, and with whom I share a lot of experiences. I have to, quite consciously and proactively, seek out people who think different.

I have huge respect for the leaders who do this consistently. Who honestly welcome the tough feedback. Who genuinely listen to the idea from left field and consider it with care. Who build teams with a glorious mix of people.

Some leaders have learned how to do this, others seem to have it instinctively. But the result is clear, I’ve seen it time and again. Every aspect of their company’s decision making is improved by having more and better ideas around the table. By having people who will call it out when things don’t make sense. Who see things from an entirely different life experience. Who bring a completely perspective to almost everything they do.

This gets reflected in everything the company does. Of course, they make better products that appeal to a wider audience. But they also build better marketing messages, that speak to more and different customers. They make fewer, if any, stupid, tone-deaf public relations gaffes.

Internally, leaders who proactively build diverse teams work better as well. They treat their employees with more respect. Which results in a happier and more productive workforce. They get a broader hiring pool, because they draw on a broader network. And they learn each and every day that the world is filled with fascinating people with a lot of unexpected things to offer. People who think different.

The best part is watching it accelerate harmonically. When leaders learn the effect of real dynamic and vital conversation in the room, they begin to crave it. They seek out people who add this kind of mix to the discussion. They recognize the formation of reality distortion fields and get frustrated when they see homogeneity all around them. And their hiring reflects that. This adds more smart, creative, and diverse people to the mix, and the culture not only expands, it accelerates.

What these leaders have learned is that diversity isn’t good because it’s some checkbox on a form. Because it mollifies the madding crowd. Or that it gets the government off their back. What they know is that diversity improves their organizations. And their business. When they make diversity systemic, a natural core part of who they are as an organization, they thrive.

This is hard. Welcoming challenges, especially in your own room, at your meeting, takes real strength. Next time we’ll look at how to model this behavior. How you can establish a culture that doesn’t just accept but invites differences. And what those meetings can and should look like.

In short, we’ll look at how you and your organization can learn to think different.

Leading Smart is from me, Chris Williams. You can find out more about the show and discover other resources for leaders at my web site

If you like the show, please share it with your friends especially on social media. Referrals are the greatest source of new listeners. I’d also love your feedback. I’m “theCLWill” on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook, or send email to

That’s it for this episode. The next episode is another of my conversations with leaders. We’ll talk with Rick Rashid, the founding father of Microsoft Research. We discuss the challenges of leading a global research organization, and the joy of seeing research projects come to life. I hope you’ll listen. Until then, please remember that each of the several dozen decisions you make today are part of Leading Smart.