Learning from Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs' fashion choices over the years

Understandably, technology news over the past week has been dominated by Steve Jobs’ resignation as Chief Executive from Apple. While he will stay on as Chairman, Tim Cook – former Chief Operating Officer – will take the helm.

There have been many wonderful pieces on Jobs (though some do read like obituaries) – these from Josh Bernoff and John Gruber being but two – which cover many angles – whether personal, professional, industry or other. I’m neither placed nor qualified to add anything new but I have enjoyed synthesising the various perspectives. Yet invariably, the person saying it the best was Jobs himself:

  • He knew what he wanted – “Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking” (Stanford commencement speech)
  • He felt he knew better than anyone else – “The only problem with Microsoft is they just have no taste. They have absolutely no taste. And I don’t mean that in a small way, I mean that in a big way, in the sense that they don’t think of original ideas, and they don’t bring much culture into their products.” (Triumph of the Nerds)
  • He, along with empowered colleagues, relentlessly pursued this – “You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”(Stanford commencement speech)
  • He was a perfectionist – “When you’re a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, you’re not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will ever see it. You’ll know it’s there, so you’re going to use a beautiful piece of wood on the back. For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through.2 (Playboy)

NB: The quotes above were taken from this Wall Street Journal article.

In Gruber’s words “Jobs’s greatest creation isn’t any Apple product. It is Apple itself.”

In 14 years he took Apple from near-bankruptcy to – briefly – the biggest company in the world by market capitalisation. He has been enormously successful. And while possibly unique – his methods run counter to textbook advice on how to run an organisation – a lot can be learned from him.

The thing I have taken most from this is Jobs’ uncompromising nature. If people weren’t on board with him, then to hell with them. This of course led to his dismissal from Apple in 1985. And his dogged focus on his preferences has informed his fashion choices over the years, as the above picture illustrates.

It might seem strange for a market researcher to take this away, particularly since research is stereotyped as decision-making by committee – something which Jobs despised:

  • “We think the Mac will sell zillions, but we didn’t build the Mac for anybody else. We built it for ourselves. We were the group of people who were going to judge whether it was great or not. We weren’t going to go out and do market research. We just wanted to build the best thing we could build.” (Playboy)
  • “For something this complicated, it’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” (BusinessWeek)

Unfortunately, this stereotype is often true, and I have been guilty of perpetuating it on occasion.

One example was when trying to get a project up and running (on a far smaller scale than rescuing Apple admittedly). With a lot of stakeholders, I tried to include as many of their wishes and requests is possible. The end result was bloated, incoherent, unfocused and over-deadline. It wasn’t one of my finer moments.

Rather than bolt everything on, I should have appraised all the input and only included that which remained pertinent to the core objective. I lost authorship of the project, and it suffered.

While there will be counter-arguments, many public failures do seem to be the result of committee-made decisions. Two bloated, incoherent examples that immediately spring to mind are Microsoft Office 2003 and the Nokia N96. Conversely, there are many examples of visionary micro-managing leaders that have driven a company to success – Walt Disney, Ralph Lauren and Ron Dennis to name but three.

I am a researcher rather than a consultant, and so don’t intend to fully adopt this approach. However, it appears that there is a greater chance of success when primary research or stakeholder input informs, rather than dictates, the final decision.

Steve Jobs knew this. His flagship products weren’t revolutionary (IBM, Microsoft, Nokia and the like were the primary innovators). But his genius was in refining a variety of inputs and stimulus, and moulding them into an expertly designed final product.

And that is something to aspire to.

sk

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One Response

  1. Jobs is a real innovator and probably one of the best of our time. He is inspiration in the flesh. What he did with Apple and with Pixar was really amazing!

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