What We Can Learn From Steve Jobs – Part 1

2012 by Garza

Walter Isaacson’s compelling biography of Steve Jobs has been out for several months now. If you are interested in leadership and haven’t read it yet, hours of absorbing material await. At 571 pages not including the acknowledgments and notes, it takes a while to get through. But for the lessons it offers, not to mention sheer entertainment value, the book is well worth the investment of time.

I think Isaacson’s most important contribution is identifying and parsing what made Jobs and Apple so successful. Jobs’ successor, Tim Cook, summed this up well, when he said the following to the investment community during Jobs’ five-month leave of absence from Apple in early 2009:

“We believe that we are on the face of the earth to make great products, and that’s not changing. We are constantly focusing on innovating. We believe in the simple not the complex. We believe that we need to own and control the primary technologies behind the products we make, and participate only in markets where we can make a significant contribution. We believe in saying no to thousands of projects, so that we can really focus on the few that are truly important and meaningful to us. We believe in deep collaboration and cross-pollination of our groups, which allow us to innovate in a way that others cannot. And frankly, we don’t settle for anything less than excellence in every group in the company, and we have the self-honesty to admit when we’re wrong and the courage to change. And I think, regardless of who is in what job, those values are so embedded in this company that Apple will do extremely well.”

Let’s break down what Cook said and consider how these core values could be instructive for the rest of us:

Great Products and Uncompromising Excellence: Jobs was uncompromising when it came to designing products that met his definition of beauty and elegance. Isaacson wrote that Jobs had a binary view of the world. Something either was absolutely perfect, the best ever – or it was crap. He made uncompromising excellence a part of Apple’s DNA. A few examples: He insisted on a perfectly aesthetic design for the Macintosh circuit board, though the consumer would never see it. He ordered the interior walls of the Macintosh manufacturing plant in Cupertino to be painted white to underscore the no-dust environment he required. He decided to redesign the layout of Apple’s retail stores, the casing for the original iPhone and the bottom edge of the first iPad — each at the last minute and at significant cost to the bottom line. Surprisingly unconcerned about expense margins, Jobs liked to say if you make great products, profits will follow. Jobs’ intolerance for anything other than excellence also applied to people. Jobs drafted only A players for Team Apple.

Innovation: It’s interesting that Jobs’ innovativeness, per se, was not a trait he valued highly. According to Isaacson, Jobs said a lot of people are innovative, but the main distinction of his career was infusing Apple’s innovation with a deep current of humanity. By now, anyone who has followed or read about Jobs’ career is familiar with his claim of having placed Apple at the intersection of technology and the humanities, a concept that Isaacson points out Jobs borrowed from Edwin Land of Polaroid. The discipline of the humanities covers a lot of territory, so that’s a pretty audacious claim. I think Jobs probably is really referring not to the humanities in general but rather to his sensibility for aesthetics, one element of the humanities. Clearly, a big part of Jobs’ genius was his sophisticated sense of beauty and his uncompromising commitment to “imputing” Apple’s products, and everything about them, including their packaging, with a consistent aesthetic tone and appeal. (A coaching client of mine has applied Jobs’ “impute” theory to his professional life, by trying to align the aspects of himself that are visible to the world – for instance, the way he dresses – with his vision for the sort of lawyer he wants to be.)

Simplicity: Simplicity was an important element of Jobs’ aesthetic taste. An early slogan of Apple was “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,” an observation often attributed to Leonardo da Vinci. Clean (and beautiful) lines and elegant functionality typify Apple products, which are usually delivered to the customer without a manual. (Early on, Jobs worked at Atari, which made a Star Trek game whose players were instructed simply to insert a quarter and avoid Klingons!) One of his most famous simplifications: Removing the computer’s on/off button. Jobs realized that making something simple is more than minimalism; you also have to understand the product and its manufacturing process at a deep level. Another contributor to Apple’s talent for simplicity: Owning and controlling the primary technologies behind Apple’s products (what Isaacson calls taking responsibility end to end). This promoted seamless integration, which in turn enabled Apple to create products that were elegant yet simple.

Focus, and Learning to Say No: Jobs was a big believer in the importance of deciding what not to do. Many people forget that as late as 1997, the year Jobs returned to Apple following his adventures with NeXT and Pixar, Apple was producing at least 12 different versions of the Macintosh computer and a lot of peripherals. Jobs quickly brought order to chaos, famously directing that going forward Apple would produce just one desktop and one portable computer for each of the consumer and professional markets – a total of four products. While Apple added additional products as it transformed the music, telephone and digital publishing industries, Jobs never lost his laser focus on creating transformative, and only transformative, products.

Deep Collaboration: Jobs was a big proponent of face-to-face meetings and organic, even unplanned, interaction. While at Pixar, he designed office space and internal traffic patterns so people whose job functions usually kept them apart would run into each other – a sort of orchestrated cross-pollination that contributed to creativity across the company. At Apple, Jobs banned formal presentations (he despised PowerPoint) in favor of unstructured meetings where people truly engaged each other. (See our post entitled “The Creative Upside of Conflict,” which highlights studies showing debate and criticism are essential for productive brainstorming.) It was this culture that, for example, enabled Apple to execute its end-to-end strategy of selling songs on iTunes, which drove sales of iPods, which in turn drove sales of iMacs. The collaboration that this required was the envy of Apple’s competitors, including Sony Music, whose then chief executive admitted that his company might have replicated Apple’s brilliant strategy but for the inability of Sony Music’s hardware, software and content divisions to collaborate. Apple’s collaborative culture also enabled it to execute seamlessly and ahead of schedule a complicated conversion of the Macintosh C.P.U. from a Motorola chip to an Intel chip, an accomplishment that amazed even Bill Gates, who told Isaacson: “If you’d said ‘Okay, we’re going to change our microprocessor chip, and we’re not going to lose a beat,’ that sounds impossible. They basically did that.” It is not hard to see how a culture so strongly supportive of this sort of robust collaboration could produce game-changing products like the devices Apple created under Jobs’ leadership.

Admitting Being Wrong and the Courage to Change: No doubt Tim Cook could come up with any number of instances to prove the point that Apple’s embedded values include admitting mistakes and the courage to change. I must say not much comes up for me as I try to recall instances in Isaacson’s book of Jobs or Apple admitting error. This might be due to faulty recall on my part, or it could have something to do with Apple’s intense focus on excellence. A couple of things do come to mind though. Very favorable reviews greeted the launch of the first iPad, except that a technology writer for Time criticized the device for emphasizing content consumption at the expense of content creation. Isaacson writes that Jobs took this criticism to heart and made sure the next version of the iPad enabled the user to create content (GarageBand and iMovie). Also, there was the time Jobs conceded that Apple was not very good at partnering with other companies, due primarily to its end-to-end design philosophy. He admitted that if Apple “could have had a little more of that in its DNA, it would have served [Apple] extremely well.” In any event, admitting when you are wrong and having the courage to change are admirable core values, especially when a company not only espouses but also lives them.

The Jobs biography overflows with lessons like these that leaders can sort through and apply in their own businesses. For Isaacson’s own thoughts on Jobs’ leadership, take a look at his article in the April 2012 Harvard Business Review, entitled “The Real Leadership Lessons of Steve Jobs.”

Happy reading, and keep an eye out for a later post that will address some of the perplexing questions Jobs’ personal style raises for those who look to him for lessons in leadership.

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