09/22/2014 11:43 am ET Updated Nov 22, 2014

The Most Important Lesson Every Entrepreneur Can Learn From Steve Jobs

Steve Rhodes

During the '70s a small team of some of the world's best computer engineers was working in Silicon Valley at PARC, Xerox's research and innovation division. Their task was to take the company's vision for the office of the future and make it a reality. Everyone who was anyone in the Valley knew that Xerox was at the leading edge of what the future would look like. These engineers were working on a bunch of things, one of which was improving upon a pointing device that was designed to be used with a computer--a pointing device that we now know as the mouse. The idea wasn't new and it hadn't been hatched by the team at PARC; the first prototype of the mouse, invented by Doug Engelbart, had actually been around since the '60s.

On a rare occasion in 1979, when a select group of visitors was invited to see what the PARC team was working on, scientist Larry Tesler demonstrated how a computer with icons on the screen could be controlled by this pointing device. It just so happened that one of the visitors that day was Steve Jobs. The story goes that as soon as he saw what would become the modern-day mouse in action, Jobs began pacing the room excitedly, and when he finally couldn't contain himself any longer, he said, 'you're sitting on a gold mine'. And 'this is insanely great'. For the life of him, Steve Jobs couldn't understand why Xerox wasn't doing anything with this invention.

While the PARC team focused on developing the product they thought the mouse would eventually become a $300 accessory built as part of a costly business computer--Steve Jobs had other ideas. A day or two after his visit to Xerox, Jobs met with design consultant Dean Hovey and told him to forget about everything else he was working on for Apple. Jobs knew exactly what they must do next.

The design brief he gave Hovey for the mouse was simple. There were just four criteria:

1. It had to be built for less than $15.
2. It had to last for two years.
3. It needed to work on a typical desktop of Formica or metal.
4. And it had to work on Jobs' Levi's.

It's clear that Jobs' vision from the start was that the mouse should be designed as an affordable consumer product. He had flipped the traditional product development model on its head. Instead of thinking about the features and function of the product in isolation, Jobs made a leap to consider what the product might mean to potential customers. He wasn't concerned so much with what the innovation did; he was more excited about what it would enable people to do. Now, instead of memorizing and typing long commands on a text-based screen, users could point to an icon and click or drag. Imagine the difference between typing a command like

move c:\clients\apple\sjobs.txt a:\billing\

and just dragging the file's icon to the folder you wanted to move it to.

When the Apple Macintosh was launched in January 1984, it was the first mass-market personal computer to feature a graphical user interface and a mouse. And that changed everything.

Malcolm Gladwell describes Jobs as 'a tweaker' who was 'endlessly refining the same territory he had claimed as a young man'. Others have said that he was an editor with an instinct for innovation, and not an inventor at all. But Jobs' real genius was that he had learned how to see and he operated with an understanding of and empathy for the people who would become future users of Apple products--devices like the iPad that would 'make our heart sing'. As Hovey said, Jobs 'connected the dots' and was 'brilliant at figuring out what a computer ought to be "for the rest of us"'. Steve Jobs was what I call a 'difference thinker'.

'Difference thinking' is more than the ability to connect the dots, though. It's about seeing the truth, recognizing the opportunity in that truth and then acting on it. You need to learn how to see the dots and understand the significance of connecting them before you can begin. And you can do that only by identifying with and understanding somebody else's feelings and frustrations. That's what Steve Jobs did intuitively; he had the ability to stand in a potential user's shoes and understand the impact that an innovation and its design might have on that person's life (and thus in the market).

This is something you can train yourself to do, too. Creating difference is not about finding a new, improved way of beating the competition. It's about reimagining what it means to be the competition. It's about closing the gap between what already exists and what could be. Creating difference means setting your own new bar by understanding how to fill the tiniest gap in human desire. Because difference is not just noticed; it's experienced and felt.

Do you need to have a brand new idea or invent something radically different in order to create difference? No, not necessarily. Starbucks didn't invent coffee, and Apple didn't invent the smartphone; these companies simply created new experiences of them, which in turn created a whole new set of meanings that we attached to what were once commodities.

Fifty years ago, the focus of business was dominance. More was the shortcut to becoming an unbeatable Goliath in the marketplace. Today the shortcut to more is to matter--not to be different, but to do something that creates difference.

It isn't the person with the best idea who wins; it's the person who has the greatest understanding of what really matters to people.

This is an extract from Bernadette Jiwa's bestselling book 'Difference'.

Image by Steve Rhodes.