The Apple Bisociative Approach to Recruiting

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Bysociative Recruiting

BYTESOCIATION/Image: Michael Moffa

What would your recruiting job be like if Steve Jobs and the Apple team had designed it—meaning your recruitment methods, formats, tools, tactics and goals?

If the actual Jobs-influenced recruitment process at Apple, as described by those familiar with it, is a reliable indicator, Jobs might have re-designed your job for you in a way that would have not only perfectly reflected his genius and flare in managing the design of Apple products, services and stores, but also would have applied the same creative strategies to your recruiting tasks.

The Creative and Commercial Power of Bisociation

One such key creative technique Jobs seems to have instinctively promoted and that Apple seems to have applied in its recruitment process design as well as in its product/service design is what was called “bisociation” by the late Arthur Koestler, in his penetrating and must-read work on creativity, The Act of Creation, the definitive analysis of scientific, technological, artistic and comic creativity. In the domain of recruitment, application of this concept and technique can be called “bisociative recruiting”.

Bisociation, arguably the most fundamental and pervasive creative technique of all, is the process of and product that results from combining two apparently opposite ideas to create a third useful or insightful hybrid of the two, in a kind of creative dialectic.

Perhaps the simplest example of a multi-billion-dollar commercial application of bisociation is the creative foundation of the vast wealth of the Walt Disney empire: Mickey Mouse (who made his debut in a 1928 Disney animated cartoon as the rather malicious “Steamboat Willie”). Mickey is a mouse, but not a mouse. Blending the concepts of a mouse and a man-child—which are indeed mutually exclusive, Disney created a perpetual-motion cash machine. Incidentally, I believe that all forms of entertainment—100% of them—are based on this simple principle. No exceptions. None. Examples:

  • Movies: Film production takes the opposition of “real” and “not real” to create “reels” and their projected illusions of reality. Vampire movies add another bisociative layer to movies: “dead” vs. “not dead” blended as “undead”.
  • NFL football: war vs. not-war, i.e., your typical violent NFL game. More generally, all games bisociate in a way much as movies do, in virtue of being simulations that bisociate “real” and “not real”. Rome’s gladiatorial games, although very real to the participants, were still bisociative to the extent that they bisociated heavy horror for the participants and grotesquely incongruous light diversion for the spectators.
  • Bull fights: wild vs. not wild, i.e., captive wild animal, with the aforementioned horror-diversion nexus
  • American Idol: speech vs. not-speech, i.e., singing. The appearance of emotional and gestural spontaneity of the singers is the result of a further bisociation, namely, “rehearsed” vs. “not-rehearsed”
  • Ventriloquism: alive vs. not alive, i.e., the dummy, plus “man’s voice” vs. “dummy’s voice” manifested as the voice of the act
  • Dancing with the Stars: walking vs. not-walking, i.e., dancing
  • Pro-wrestling: fake vs. not-fake, i.e., the typical WWF match
  • Jugglers: keeping objects vs. throwing objects, i.e., juggling. The second layer of bisociation in juggling is the opposition between “objects to be thrown and caught” vs. “objects that should not be thrown and caught”, e.g., lit torches and razor-sharp knives.
  • Sword swallowers: food vs. not-food, i.e., swallowed swords

In the field of recruitment, the apparent Apple obliteration of the distinction between product/service design and recruitment design, described below, is an apparent application of that technique, even in Apple domains unrelated to pure entertainment. On the product side, the modern iPhone is a hybrid of phone, camera and computer—each originally conceived as a device utterly incompatible with and disparate from the other two.

Apple’s use of bisociation is further manifested in Steve Jobs’ original eureka epiphany that transformed the opposition of then-extant powerful corporate mainframe computing vs. personal and then only imagined advanced home computing into the desktop Apple Mac. Likewise, the conventional opposition of macro and micro management—usually not undertaken by the same person, got bisociated through the hands-on style of Jobs, so that both the “big picture” and the tiniest design details were within his personal grasp and control. Jobs also took this approach with the process of Apple team recruiting. Speaking of this, in the 2010 interview excerpted below, John Sculley, former Apple CEO, said, “he (Jobs) personally did all the recruiting for his team. He never delegated that to anybody else.”

Bisociative Recruiting

Reading between the lines of one blogged report posted by an unsuccessful Apple job candidate, it can be discerned that during the interviewing and vetting process each applicant has been required to play two customarily opposite roles: Apple insider and Apple outsider. Here’s an account from that Apple interviewee, on the first page of a blog of hundreds of such Apple interview reports; note what appears to be a subtle blending of the roles of applicant and initiate, supply-side worker and demand-side consumer, end-user consumer and used in-house manpower, Apple product tester and Apple recruiter-tested job applicant:

“Once I arrived I was greeted by Apple employees and I filled out a piece of paper pertaining to the job like availability and what products I have owned or currently own. Once everyone had arrived we were loudly invited into another room where all the employees heading the seminar cheered and clapped. We got seated and everyone introduced themselves, everyone. Next we watched a few videos which showed the history and atmosphere of Apple retail. After each video the group was asked by an employee what we thought about the video or did anything stick out? Once the videos were completed we split up into groups and an Apple employee took us to a different part of the room and we answered individual questions. These questions were presented on an iPad…” (Italics mine).

Much Deeper Than Rah-Rah

Read superficially, this account, repeatedly confirmed by many other Apple interviewees, sounds like a typical rah-rah seminar format: pump up the crowd while pumping the company, its products and the company line—as product line and philosophy line. But, deeper reflection suggests that what is going on here is a brilliant integration of bisociated opposites, in which the job applicant is made to simultaneously play two very different, yet complementary roles—including the roles of

  • unique individual and team player: applauding the candidates as a group when they enter the seminar, yet requiring self-introductions on an individual basis after that.
  • product user and developer: Getting the applicant to use the tools (s)he will be expected to improve. Giving the job candidates iPads to use during interviews is a perfect way to do this.
  • customer and job applicant: Again, the iPad given to candidates can identify them as current customers or motivate them to become future customers.
  • corporate product/service tester and tested applicant: Asking candidates what they think of the video is a clever way to collect feedback about the video, for the purpose of evaluating and improving it, as well a method of gleaning useful feedback about the candidates.
  • competitor and cooperator: Another applicant reported the following experience—“The  second interview felt more like an interview but it was done in groups, I was interviewing with two other people. We entered a room and they asked us a question that we all had to answer”. This is a variation on the psychological game called “Let’s-You-and-Him-Fight”, inasmuch as irrespective of however collegial other aspects of the interviewing format may seem, the candidate responses in this situation are in direct audible and visible competition.

Here are other Apple-Jobs recruitment and employment bisociations, as teased from the comments of former Apple CEO, John Sculley, in a wide-ranging October 2010 candid interview:

  • grow vs. not grow—Jobs’ hire-retire-fire core team strategy. It may seem paradoxical for a company to grow without some growth in the core-staff numbers, but, “Steve had a rule that there could never be more than one hundred people on the Mac team. So if you wanted to add someone you had to take someone out. And the thinking was a typical Steve Jobs observation: ‘I can’t remember more than a hundred first names so I only want to be around people that I know personally. So if it gets bigger than a hundred people, it will force us to go to a different organization structure where I can’t work that way. The way I like to work is where I touch everything.’”

Jobs’ philosophy in recruiting seemed to perfectly parallel his thinking in product development—a variant of the economist E.F. Schumacher’s “small is beautiful” 1970s credo and quasi-bisociated concept of “smallness within bigness”: compact products, compact creative team. In both product and team design, Jobs applied his characteristic “minimalism” (manifested in his sparse home furnishings and preference for compact products) and hands-on tactile engineering bias that compelled him, even in his earlier years, to disassemble gadgets and meticulously examine their components.  His personally handling all recruiting of his core team members further exemplifies this macro-micro bisociation within the mind of Steve Jobs and at Apple.

  • good cop vs. bad cop: Employing a post-hiring variation on the carrot-and-stick approach, “Steve would shift between being highly charismatic and motivating and getting them excited to feel like they are part of something insanely great. And on the other hand he would be almost merciless in terms of rejecting their work until he felt it had reached the level of perfection that was good enough to go into – in this case, the Macintosh.” This was tantamount to a bisociation of good cop-bad cop in one and the same person.
  • product discoverer and inventor: The creative ideals that Jobs espoused included blurring or collapsing the distinction between invention and discovery. Speaking of the lasting impact of a meeting he and Jobs had with Dr. Edwin Land, co-founder of Polaroid, Sculley said, in the aforementioned interview,Both of them had this ability to not invent products, but discover products. Both of them said these products have always existed—it’s just that no one has ever seen them before. We were the ones who discovered them. The Polaroid camera always existed and the Macintosh always existed—it’s a matter of discovery. Steve had huge admiration for Dr. Land. He was fascinated by that trip.

This bisociation of discovery and invention is replicated in the Apple recruitment process. During some interviews, candidates are asked to create a new product and present it to the group. From the Apple corporate viewpoint, this is an additional collapse of the discovery-invention dichotomy, since Apple will discover, in the recruitment groups, what the applicants create as it is being invented—another clever recruitment tactic that can conceivably pay off in terms of Apple product development, should an applicant come up with a promising original idea.

The Most Challenging Bisociation of All

That the likes of Apple, the world’s most valuable company, and Disney have in the course of making their fortunes utilized bisociation as an underlying, even if unconsciously adopted creative technique, confirms its singular role in generating wealth as well as ideas. The utilization and extension of bisociation in Apple recruiting attests two additional facts—that Steve Jobs and Apple did not compartmentalize its role and that bisociation can be applied in the design and execution of your own or your client company’s recruiting steps.

However, to accomplish this, you will have to attempt what may, for you, seem to be the most challenging bisociation of all.

Bisociating “recruiter” and “bisociation”.

By Michael Moffa