Steve Jobs: “Real Artists Ship” – Here’s What He Meant

“Real artists ship.”
— Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs, early years - courtesy of

Steve Jobs: ‘Real artists ship.’

According to the folklore at Apple, this was a favourite saying meaning you have to have the guts to actually deliver when it’s time to deliver.

In one instance in particular, Steve Jobs used the mantra to call the bluff of a reluctant engineer who didn’t think his code was ready.

Jobs laid down the law.

Seth Godin argues in his books that the real problem is fear.  It’s a lot safer to try to pretend that just a few more days will enable reaching perfection, but that’s just illusion. The real problem is fear.  And the solution is courage. That recalcitrant engineer, the argument runs, was simply prone to that overly-cautious lizard brain.

So in comes the ‘real artists ship’ mantra. It’s a call to arms, a suggestion that you should just fight back, suck it up, or ‘feel the fear and do it anyway,’ as one saying goes. Just do it. Give the send order. Hit the publish button. What the hell, go for it, even if the creative idea is only half-baked. The next adage you hear is that it’s okay to fail – in fact, fail early and fail often.

These just-do-it interpretations miss a key part of the quote – ‘real artists’ are first and foremost just that: real artists. And that means they actually do a few crucial things long before they ship.

If you focus on these other crucial things, you may find that the problem is not at all fear. It’s the absence of passion and purpose. It’s the absence of the drive and confidence that go hand in hand with passion and purpose.

So here’s another way to think about the ‘real artists ship’ mantra: Sure, you want to ship. You’re yearning to create what you’re yearning to create. But first ask if you’re doing what a ‘real artist’ does in the first place. The real artist does these three things:

Passion and Purpose Are the Drivers

Real Artists are first and foremost REALNotice that Jobs didn’t say ‘responsible companies ship on time.’ He wasn’t talking about mechanical operations. He was referring to how he and Apple had developed a purpose so clear it created an energy and drive that overpowered the stresses that come from doubt or fear. The lizard brain is puny compared to the power of purpose that forms in the higher parts of the brain.

Real Artists Collaborate

Even artists who appear to work alone collaborate in countless ways. Notice that Jobs himself in the example above was collaborating with the engineer. They both would have shipped nothing without that collaboration.

If you feel the tug of fear about finishing a creative project you’ve started, maybe the fear is a signal.  Maybe you need to first collaborate with a kindred spirit or colleague. Discuss it. Brainstorm. The encouraging words of a good mentor are in short supply these days, yet they’ve never been in greater demand.

Real Artists are True to Their Values, Calling

It’s hard to imagine Shakespeare feeling paralyzed by fear and saying to himself, ‘okay, Will, just feel the fear and do it anyway.’ He was pursuing what his heart called him to do. As he wrote in Hamlet, “This above all: to thine own self be true.” It was an expression of his own beliefs; like all writers, he placed his own ideas in the mouths of his characters.

So if you ever feel the tug of doubt about a creative project, maybe it’s a sign that the project is not aligned with your own values, your own true self. That’s okay, it may be a sign it’s the wrong project. It might be a sign to switch to that other project that really is in line with your true inner values and calling.

In Praise of ‘Old’ Ideas – like Justice, Service and Empathy

One of the biggest myths of innovation is that it’s all about ‘new ideas.’ “We’re stuck … we need new ideas here!” you’ll often hear someone say.

Yes, clearly new ideas are a core part of innovating. But we need to dispel the myth that they’re the sole part of innovating. Ironically, ‘old’ ideas may actually be more important in creating change.

Abraham Lincoln - courtesy of

Abraham Lincoln, 16th US President, 1861-65

Abraham Lincoln, perhaps surprisingly, illustrates this brilliantly.

Lincoln was an innovator in the sense that he helped create a new America, a United States that no longer permitted slavery. He transformed America from a country that treated slaves as assets on a plantation’s balance sheet to a nation where every human being would be free regardless of the color of their skin.

How did he do it? Did he simply champion this ‘new’ idea or go around calling for more new ideas? Not at all. He skillfully built his case for change upon some of the oldest ideas in the country: freedom, equality and justice.

You can see this beautifully in his most famous words of the period, the Gettysberg address. In this brief, eloquent plea for change, Lincoln invokes the ideals of the founding fathers – ideals they hoped would never change: a country “conceived in liberty” and built on the belief that “all men are created equal.”

Thomas J Watson, Jr., who spearheaded IBM in the 1960s, applied the same wisdom to make IBM at once both firmly grounded and innovative. He believed this so strongly he wrote a book called A Business and Its Beliefs. In the book, he captured the basic idea perfectly:

“any great organization … owes its resiliency … to the power of what we call beliefs and the appeal these beliefs have for its people. … the single most imporant factor in corporate success is faithful adherence to those beliefs. And finally … if an organization is to meet the challenges of a changing world, it must be prepared to change everything about itself except those beliefs as it moves through corporate life … . 1

In other words, it’s the old ideas, the core beliefs that don’t change, that actually produce the purpose that drives change and new ideas. That’s the philosophy that has kept IBM at the top of its field to this day.

Once again, it’s that kind of dedication to an ‘old’ idea that drives the search for the new ideas.

Take the idea of true customer service. It too is an old idea, as old as business itself. Unfortunately, it’s not always embraced in a world only looking for ‘new’ ideas.

Today, sadly, too few businesses really take it seriously.

Steve Jobs did, and the results showed. In fact, he took customer service to a level of near-obsession. It was all for the customer: if the customer isn’t a fan, you haven’t done your job. His mission was to provide the customer with an “insanely great experience,” not just customer service.

In the last several years, the world of Design Thinking is, fortunately, helping to bring back the ‘old’ idea of empathy. “Deep empathy for people makes our observations powerful sources of inspiration,” say Tom Kelley and David Kelley from IDEO. “We aim to understand why people do what they do … our first-person experiences help us form personal connections with people for whome we’re innovating … all to build empathy. An empathic approach fuels our process by ensuring we never forget we’re designing for real people.” 2

Unfortunately, not enough companies have yet embraced the ‘old’ idea of empathy. Often the fetish remains solely on short-term profit, and the result at best is to pretend to be innovating rather than actually doing it.

So the next time someone says “we need new ideas here!”, stop and ask, “Wait a second. What about the time-tested, old ideas we believe in? Do we really have any? What are the deeply-held beliefs that we’re not prepared to change here?

In other words, to think like an innovator, to bring about the real change you truly want, first ask yourself if you have deep beliefs that you would never change. When you find them, don’t be shy. Embrace them, and let them drive the search for the change you do want.


  1. Thomas J. Watson, Jr., A Business and Its Beliefs, (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1963), pp. 5-6.
  2. Tom Kelley and David Kelley, Creative Confidence (New York: Random House, 2013), p. 21.

Even Lawyers Can Change their Ways: the UK Story of Innovating in Legal Services

Several friends have asked me to write a post to explain how it is that the UK managed to massively innovate and transform its legal services sector in the past ten years, while the legal profession in other jurisdictions, such as Ontario, by comparison, virtually stood still. In many ways, it’s an example of needing to challenge old assumptions and unlearn old ways, something that always will ruffle feathers somewhere.

Among the major innovations in the UK reforms were the creating of three new bodies formally dedicated to defending and protecting consumers’ interests in legal services, and new business structures designed to help make legal services affordable. Such innovations did not also occur in Canada, at all. Why? Why did the UK become so much more innovative than Canada in protecting consumers?

Tony Blair - courtesy of Wikipedia

Tony Blair, UK Prime Minister, 1997-2007

The story really begins back in 2001. Two people in particular, Tony Blair and Sir David Clementi, are the main protagonists in the UK’s transformation, although I’m inclined to add an influential woman as well, Cherie Blair, who was a leading lawyer and the country’s first lady at the time.

(Back in 2001, I was practicing law with a major UK firm, so I’m familiar with the origins of the UK’s transformation, and even had many a discussion on the early reforms.) 1

Let’s go back to 2001.

In 2001, Tony Blair’s Labour Government published a report called ‘Competition in Professions,’ a report that drew attention to the problems created by monopolies in a profession. It called for removing any unjustified restrictions on competition. It was a first step in the direction protecting consumers better. 2        

In July 2003, the Blair Government then published a further report, this time specifically on the legal services sector. It concluded that the existing rules and framework were outdated, inflexible, over-complex and insufficiently accountable or transparent. The Government concluded that “a thorough and independent investigation without reservation is needed.” 3

The Government backed up its commitment to fairness and objectivity with action. The Report required that “the investigation will be undertaken by an independent person who commands public confidence but who is neither a practising lawyer nor a judge.” 4

Sir David Clementi, courtesy of Winchester College

Sir David Clementi

To fulfill that requirement, Tony Blair appointed Sir David Clementi, a respected former deputy Governor of the Bank of England who was then Chairman of Prudential plc.

The Terms of Reference for the investigation contained two simple guidelines, both of which focused on consumers:  first, to consider what structures or framework would “best promote” the “consumer interest;” and second, to recommend a framework that would represent both the “public” and “consumer interest,” and be  “comprehensive, accountable, consistent, flexible, [and] transparent.” 5

The mandate given to the Clementi commission was thus to find ways to specifically  protect the “consumer interest,” not just the traditional – and vague, often-used legal jargon – “public interest.”

From 2003 to 2004, the Clementi commission received submissions from a wide range of people and organizations – including “organisations who speak for the consumer; lawyers; academics; and members of the public.” Clementi described it as a “significant amount of evidence” that he used in forming the final recommendations.

In December 2004, Clementi presented his final Report. He said that the 18 months of review had confirmed what the Blair government had initially concluded: “the current system is flawed.” The final Report, also called the UK’s ‘Legal Services Review,’ was comprehensive. It contained a set of major recommendations, all built around the main theme of providing “a framework independent of Government in which to promote competition and innovation,” and protecting the “consumer interest.” 6

The Blair Government fully accepted the Review’s recommendations, and proceeded to develop the legislation to implement them.

In October 2005, the Government published an overview of the proposed new legislation in a report aptly called “The Future of Legal Services: Putting Consumers First.” 7 In brief:

“The purpose of the changes is to put the consumer first. The Government has set up a Consumer Panel to advise it as it takes forward reform. … The Government has accepted Sir David Clementi’s recommendations. …  Consumers will be clear about the system, and will be able to hold all partners in the framework to account for delivering these commitments. … These steps will increase confidence in the regulatory system and in legal professionals.

In 2006, the Blair Government tabled the first draft of the new Legal Services Act. The Bill was thoroughly debated for a year, by a joint committee of MPs and Peers.

In 2007, after a year of debate, the new Legal Services Act was adopted.

For the purposes of this brief post, the new Act brought in three main reforms:

The Legal Services Consumers Panel

Its role is to “provide independent advice … about the interests of users of legal services … by investigating issues that affect consumers.”

The Legal Ombudsman (also called the Office for Legal Complaints)

Its mandate is to be an “independent and impartial” body that handles complaints from consumers of legal services, and seeks to resolve the disputes in a neutral manner and environment.

The Legal Services Board

This is the new overall body created to be an “independent body responsible for overseeing the regulation of lawyers” in the UK (England and Wales); its stated goal is “to reform and modernise the legal services market place by putting the interests of consumers at the heart of the system.”

The new Act also brought in other reforms, such as new rules that allow ‘alternative business structures’ aimed to enable legal services to be provided more efficiently, with lower fees. (This is a major topic of its own, too extensive to cover here, and no doubt worth covering in a subsequent post).

If one were to sum up the UK’s reforms in a single word, it should be clear that the one word is consumers.

While many people talk the talk about innovating in legal services, the main reason for major reform and innovation in the UK is that the UK has actually walked the walk. The leaders in the UK embraced the reality that law belongs to the people, and accordingly put consumers first by treating the consumers of legal services with the respect they deserve.

Today, in Canada, not a single piece of regulatory legislation in the area of legal services even mentions the term “consumer interest” or creates a duty on anyone to promote and protect the “consumer interest.” Consumers, in the area of legal services in Canada, are voiceless and unrepresented.

The story of reform in the UK shows clearly that the innovations there really began with a courageous step to give consumers a voice. That courage took leadership. It remains to be seen whether any politicians or lawyers in Canada really have much regard or respect for consumers. Very odd when you remember that consumers are actually the people who make up 99% of society, cast the votes in elections, and pay the legal bills.


  1. (In 2001, I was with the UK law firm Lovells, which has since become Hogan-Lovells.
  2. Office of Fair Trading, Competition in Professions (2001).
  3. Department of Constitutional Affairs, “Competition and Regulation in the Legal Services Market” (2003).
  4. Department of Constitutional Affairs, “Competition and Regulation in the Legal Services Market” (2003).
  5. The Terms of Reference are set out in the Report Competition and Regulation of the Legal Services Market, and are restated again in the final Clementi Report.
  6. Sir David Clementi, “Report of the Review of Legal Services in England and Wales,” (December 2004).
  7. Department of Constitutional Affairs, “The Future of Legal Services: Putting Consumers First” (October 2005).

Can We Teach Innovation? For Canada’s Sake, Let’s Hope We Can

How Canada Performs - Innovation - courtesy of the Conference Board of Canada

Source: Conference Board of Canada

It’s not quite an F, but it’s pretty close. Normally a D average gets a student placed on probation, and in this case the student is Canada.

And yes, the overall grade was D.

That’s the grade Canada received from the Conference Board of Canada in its annual study last year on Innovation. 1

In all, the study analyzed 16 developed countries, and Canada placed an abysmal 13th, three from the bottom.

And the study was comprehensive: it examined 21 categories that relate to innovation. Canada got a D in 13 of them (with C’s and B’s in the other categories – and not a single A).

It’s hard to imagine a more scathing report. What’s even harder to understand is how the low grade still gets ignored in most business circles – the circles that ought to be trying to get this student to smarten up.

Is it because many Canadians still think of innovation as just inventing new products?

That’s a big mistake. The Conference Board is part of a growing group who define innovation in the broadest terms: it is “a process through which economic or social value is extracted from knowledge—through the creating, diffusing, and transforming of ideas—to produce new or improved products, services, processes, strategies, or capabilities.”

And the Study has a stark warning for Canadians, particularly those who think innovation is ‘someone else’s problem’:

“Canada’s low ranking matters. Innovation is essential to a high-performing economy. Countries that are more innovative are passing Canada on measures such as income per capita, productivity, and the quality of social programs. It is also critical to environmental protection, a high-performing education system, a well-functioning system of health promotion and health care, and an inclusive society. Without innovation, all these systems stagnate and Canada’s performance deteriorates relative to that of its peers.”

So what’s Canada’s biggest problem?

Actually, the answer jumps out at you when you read the Board’s overall assessment of Canada. Here’s the good news in the Study: Canada got an ‘A’ in Education and Skills. Well, if you get an A in Education and Skills but are lousy at innovating, doesn’t that tell you something?

How Canada Performs - Education - courtesy of the Conference Board of Canada

Source: Conference Board of Canada

It means Canada is great at teaching – it’s just not teaching the right stuff. So therein lies the potential silver bullet: Canada needs to start teaching innovation a whole lot better, such as adding more design schools, or ‘D Schools,’ to business faculties. 

The study also has another key insight: stop blaming the government. Oh if only you could collect a dollar every time you hear someone from the private sector lambaste government for whatever. But this Study shows an interesting finding: as regards Innovation, Canada’s public sector faired quite well. In fact, the private sector ranks well below the public sector. The government scored a ‘B’ in online innovation, while the private sector got straight D’s in all the areas where the private sector ought to be doing its job.

There’s a lot more to the Study, and it’s worth a careful read. But the conclusion we can draw from the above is clear.

Canada: you’re good at teaching. So just start teaching innovation better … now.



  1. Conference Board of Canada, How Canada Performs (2013).

Mahatma Gandhi: Lessons from one of History’s Most Unlikely Leaders of Great Change

"Be the Change You Want to See in This World" - courtesy of McKee Public SchoolBe the change you want to see in this world’ is the simple quote usually attributed to Mahatma Gandhi.

But did he really say that? And what does it mean? Is it the reason he managed to lead his country to overthrow the British Empire?

Mahatma Gandhi

Mahatma Gandhi

It is certainly true that Mahatma Gandhi almost singlehandedly transformed India. In my previous post (Nelson Mandela as a Remarkable Innovator), I suggested we could look at Nelson Mandela as an innovator, and, by doing so, draw powerful lessons. We can do the same thing by looking at the life, thinking and character of Mahatma Gandhi in a similar way.  Here are three traits that made Gandhi a man who changed the world.

1.    A Singularity of Purpose, a Dominant Core Value

As mentioned in the post on Mandela, people who change the world or innovate are usually driven by an intense singularity of purpose, often by one core value in particular. Mandela’s was a life-long dedication to equality.

Gandhi too had a singularity of purpose that was driven by a near-obsession with one core value.

What comes as a surprise to many people, especially in these days of skepticism and cynicism, is that the singular core value Gandhi pursued was truth.

If you read Gandhi’s autobiographry, the first thing you might be struck by is its subtitle, ‘My Experiments with Truth.’ The entire book describes how he linked everything he did with his personal reflections on truth. The pursuit of truth even guided his thinking on policy. His conclusion that India should not be ruled by Britain was in fact based on his pursuit of truth: he simply saw no basis in truth to suggest that the Indian people were in any way lesser than the British. It followed – logically – that India should be free and rule itself.

2.    Diverse Knowledge

Once again, modern research shows that the most creative minds have not just deep knowledge in a particular field, but also diverse knowledge and understanding of a variety of subjects. Creative people and innovators are curious: they ask questions and pursue answers, wherever those answers might take them.

The evidence of Gandhi’s remarkably curious mind is found in the vast legacy of articles and books he wrote. Gandhi was unbelievably prolific, writing some one hundred books and articles, on topics that ranged from politics to policy to non-violence to history to philosophy. This was in addition to his formal training and early profession in the law.

The lesson we can draw is that while we certainly need to teach people to specialize in the field of their choice, we must equally encourage people to balance specialized knowledge with a continued pursuit of knowledge in areas they are curious or passionate about.

3.    Emotional Wisdom

Everyone faces challenges in life, and perhaps the biggest one we all face today is to fend off negatives and set backs in order to stay focused on our positive goals.

Like Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi developed the skill of what we can call emotional wisdom. It is more than just emotional intelligence. It is the ability and skill to take life’s negatives and setbacks and actually transform them back into positive ends.

Here’s how Gandhi once put it, and consider if this skill alone may have made been the key reason Gandhi was able to achieve what he did: “I had learned through bitter experience the one supreme lesson to conserve my anger, and as heat is transmuted into energy, even so our anger controlled can be transmuted into a power which can move the world.”

Gandhi also inspired others to do exactly the same. Gandhi’s fifth grandson, Arun Gandhi, was fourteen when his grandfather was assassinated in 1948. When it happened he was so filled with anger that he wanted revenge against the assassin. But then he recalled what his grandfather had taught him: “Gandhi taught me at age twelve that anger is as useful and powerful as electricity … but only if we use it intelligently. We must learn to respect anger as we do electricity.” Today, at 79, Arun Gandhi is a renouned advocate and public speaker who campaigns for non-violence and the peaceful resolution of conflict.

My kids and their classmates would be proud of him.