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Sunday, 6 November 2011

Lessons we can learn from Steve

I’ve just finished reading "Steve Jobs" by Walter Isaacson.  It is a great book - very honest and open about Steve’s achievements, relationships, influences and also his turbulent personality.  
The one thing that shines out from the book is Steve’s emotions - he was without doubt a very emotional person.  Many of the ‘bad Steve’ traits can be traced directly to that emotional side - the absence of the filter that normal people have between our internal thoughts and what we say and how we behave.  If he didn’t like something he said so, often in very strong terms.  He knew his own mind and pursued his dreams, even when everyone around him disagreed.
Those emotions are what drove him and Apple to achieve great things.  The honesty and openness of opinions seems to have led to an environment in which the usual corporate ‘dancing around the handbags’ culture was missing.  Steve spoke his mind and expected those around him to do likewise.  The result appears to have been a highly charged emotional environment, but one that got stuff done.
He took things to the extreme though - I’m not sure that is so positive.  Or, maybe it is.  He achieved some pretty extreme things and built the worlds largest company by doing the opposite of what all conventional business thinking suggested.  That takes guts and it takes a single mindedness that very few people have.  You don’t do that through consensus decision making or without upsetting people.  When he took back the reigns at Apple every arm-chair critic offered advice - ranging from Michael Dell’s delusional “shut the company down and give the money back to the shareholders” comment (don’t you just know he wishes he’d kept his mouth shut, in hindsight?!), to the many cries to license MacOS and emulate Microsoft.  Steve ignored all conventional wisdom and followed his intuition.  You don’t see that very often.  He was right and those who invested in Apple at that time have made a lot of money.
I think that emotional honesty is the thing that made his death such a public event.  Whatever you think of him or his products, his voice was authentic.  He cared, and he tried his absolute best to build the best products he could.  He was no corporate drone - this was a man on a personal mission.  That honesty of character is refreshing.  His biography is particularly revealing - the good bits and the bad bits are laid bare - you see an honest view of a man and all his faults.  
I often hear people asking how Apple have managed to be so innovative, how one company has managed to create so many hit products.  iMac, iPod, iPhone, iPad is an astonishing run of products - so what is the secret?  Apple doesn’t have anything unique - it has the same access to capital, the same employee base, the same large-company processes, the same investor focus on earnings and share price.  So how has one company managed to consistently come up with such innovative and successful products?  
After reading Steve’s biography I can see clearly three factors that drive that level of innovation.
  1. Focus on making the best products possible as your primary driver.
  2. Allow your artistic side to flourish.
  3. Continually reinvent yourself.
Focus on making the best products possible as your primary driver.
The single thread throughout Steve’s biography was the focussed motivation to build great products and change the world.  He didn’t care about making money, being “the richest person in the cemetery” doesn’t seem to have been a motivator.  He wanted to make the very best products possible, in the belief that if he succeeded at that then people would buy them.  It was a simple belief, but it transcended everything and ended up having a profound impact on Apple.
It turns out that if you focus on making the best products then you have a very different approach than if you focus on making a profit as the primary motivator.  Those that focus on profit too easily cut corners, make design compromises, failing to appreciate the importance of design integrity.  Only if you focus on the product do you allow yourself to polish and refine it in ways that would be impossible to do if you have to build a business case to justify it.  Just compare Apple under Sculley with Apple under Jobs to see the difference this subtle change of emphasis had.
Read Steve Jobs, listen to his keynotes - he always comes back to this point.  Build the best products you can, then people will buy them - and if they buy them then you will be successful.  Do not focus on bozo-metrics like short-term share-price, quarterly earnings, etc.  Spend your energy on making your products as best as is humanly possible.  Ignore focus groups, don’t ask what people what they want, don’t obsess about business cases that are fanciful guesses at the very best.  Invest in product design, envision the future, ‘scate to where the puck is going to be, not where it is now” to use an Ice Hockey term.
Easy to say if you are Steve Jobs.  The single challenge this leaves all other organisations is how to identify the leaders you can trust to build these products.  If you want to be innovative then this is what you need to focus on.  Find those leaders, nurture them, incent them in a way that connects them deeply to the mission and success of your company.  Give them the control and power to build those products.   Get bureaucracy out of their hair.
Allow your artistic side to flourish.
The second learning point I see is that great products are not pure science or logic.  Artistry is important - the curve of a screw-head, the way an interface scrolls, the graphical artistry of the interface.  These are things an artist appreciates.  A computer scientist will make things that are ‘good enough’, but they aren’t.  Truly great products have an artistic side to them and Steve Jobs understood this.  He was famous for painting Apple at the intersection of Computer Science and the Liberal Arts.  We don’t all need to be selling music though.  Artistry can be built into the product design process without needing to sign contracts with EMI.  This understanding that great products are as much about Art as they about Science is great truism.
When I was at University studying Computer Science, we had a module that was focussed on the question “is Computing an Art or a Science?”  That was twenty years ago - long before Steve Jobs was doing deals with music studios.  Our computer lab was stuffed full of the original 128K Apple Mac though - I had training early on in my career!  Its a question few really understand - too many people plump for the Science answer.  Of course the real answer is that its a blend - but few understand this.  Those that do “get it”.
Continually reinvent yourself.
The last lesson is that you need to continually reinvent - take your most successful and most profitable products and reinvent them.  Steve understood clearly that if you don’t do this then the competitors will.  Apple owned the MP3-Player market with the iPod, but understood that phones were going to destroy that market long-term.  So, despite having no experience of making phones whatsoever, they decided to not only make a phone, but to make a phone that destroyed the iPod market.  Most companies, on reaching market dominance with a product will be too tempted to milk the revenues and only tinker with the next revolution when their revenues start to decline (i.e. when they can make a robust business case).  Instead, Steve understood that you don’t wait for the signs and you don’t wait to build a robust business case - you start the next product cycle pro-actively before the competition.
These are my rules for innovation:
  1. Focus on making the best products possible as your primary driver.
  2. Allow your artistic side to flourish.
  3. Continually reinvent yourself.
Corporate innovation practices like crowd-sourcing, having an innovation process, etc. can help but they will have limited impact if the culture and purpose of the company are wrong.  If you really want your organisation to be built around innovation, rather than to have innovation bolted onto it, I humbly suggest that these lessons from Steve’s life and achievements are worth considering.

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