A few months ago, when I needed to replace my laptop, I considered switching to a Mac but was concerned about the learning curve. I put a note out on Facebook with an enquiry. Of 20 responses, 19 were from Mac users. “I love my Mac,” was the essential essence of the messages. The lone PC user said, “I’ve used a PC for 20 years and never had any problem.” which might have been a ringing endorsement if were not for the amazingly enthusiastic responses from Mac users. I bought a MacBook Air. I have no regrets.
Now, I’m reading Steve Jobs biography. It doesn’t pull any punches. It is a straightforward account of a brilliant, demanding, tyrannical, charismatic man, often running roughshod over people to get what he wanted. He had a love for art and technology – a combination that allowed him to imagine possibilities others just couldn’t see. It was brilliant for Apple and more so for Pixar. He would never win any awards for his people leadership skills but he could dream the future, imagining products we didn’t know we wanted or needed and he followed his intuition all the way to the bank.
Reading his biography, the threads that contributed to Apple’s successful innovation, responsiveness to conditions and opportunity, and the imagination that brought so much alive in techni-colour, became apparent.
Jobs was obsessive about control and when he had an idea he fell in love with, he didn’t want to let go. He wasn’t always right, and he wasn’t impervious to influence, but when he was right he changed worlds. He revolutionized the computer industry, then the film industry, the music industry and the book industry.
He didn’t treat people well, but he knew a thing or two about the business of innovation. A few themes caught my attention as I read:
- beauty and intuitive
- simplicity and focus
- integration – not just of product design but of the people and departments responsible for all aspects of a product
Apple products were designed for beauty and intuitive use. Anybody should be able to pick an Apple product up and figure out how to use it without a manual. And they should love the look and feel of it. This influenced the design of products. In the development of the iPod for instance, Jobs decided users should be able to get to anything they wanted intuitively in no more than three steps. The guiding concept: a thousand songs in your pocket. Products were designed with the user in mind. The few times Jobs lost sight of that, like with NeXT his company after and before Apple, he didn’t do as well.
Simplicity and focus. Apple picked a few key projects to work on in any given year and dedicated resources to the most promising of them. Anyone could pitch an idea – without a powerpoint because formal presentations bored Jobs. They had to know what they were talking about well enough to free flow it, discuss it (often heatedly) and not rely on a prop like a slide. Although something tactile, put in people’s hands worked well.
For products under development, long weekly meetings were held with all departments represented to hash out ideas. Prototypes were developed that could be picked up, turned over and handled to determine what worked, what could be improved and to know when they nailed it. The conversations were no holds barred – animated, lively. It all came out in the meetings. The people who fared best were the ones who figured out how to stand up to Jobs, when to fight, when to wait, when to back down.
Jobs would not allow dissension between departments. If they couldn’t get along, someone lost a job. And when decisions needed to be made about product, design, colour or other relevant factors, it didn’t go to a committee for recommendations or a market study to figure it out – decisions were made, often on the spot, without hesitation. They might not always have been right, but the speed of decision making capability enabled Apple to be responsive, resilient and a market leader more often than not.
Beauty, simplicity, focus, end to end control, responsiveness, imagination as hallmarks of innovation. Not that I’ve done it better than Jobs or come anywhere near to his success, but I would like to think adding in a strong people culture to this great list would only enhance capacity for innovation – so long as we really understand what this means, growing leadership and decision making capacity within an organization, not diluting it. While there are one or two things that give me pause, there is a lot to be learned from Apple and from Steve Jobs. After all, he did shift the shape of the world as we know it.
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