Friday, June 28, 2013

Five Lessons from Steve Jobs

1.  Customers don’t know what they want.Throughout his career, Steve Jobs famously eschewed market research and relied on his intuition.  In a 1985 interview with Playboy, he said: “We built [the Mac] 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.”  Twelve years later, he told Business Week:  “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”  I actually think Jobs was right but only in the very narrow category to which he aspired: where his products, such as the Mac, iPod, iPhone and iPad, either redefined or created product categories. That’s not the domain in which most businesses play. Remember also that Jobs backed up his unique insights with an enormously expensive creative process populated by world-class designers.  Without Jobs’ talents and the unparalleled creative team and processes that he built around himself, you won’t get away with doing no market research and not listening to your customers.
2.  Maintain obsessive secrecy. In 2008, a writer in Wired observed that “Apple operates with a level of secrecy that makes Thomas Pynchon look like Paris Hilton.”  This didn’t just apply to the ultra secrecy around Apple’s products, the details of which were famously guarded until unveiled in Jobs’ mind-bending keynotes (down to his famous “there’s one more thing”).  Super secrecy also applied to the eight-year-long, closed-lipped strategy that Apple employed with investors and the media about Jobs’ health problems (the concealment of which “disgusted” one board member, the late Jerome York).  Yet Apple was able to withstand the pressure for more transparency because its products consistently delighted customers and its results wowed investors.  This, along with Jobs’ particular talents, allowed Jobs to carve out an exception for himself.  Imagine if such secrecy culminated in a fiasco, such as a large share price drop if Jobs had died without warning.
3.  Project a reality-distortion field. In describing his technology-related arguments with Jobs, Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman ofGooglerecently wrote:  “He had this extraordinary depth. I have a PhD in this area, and he was so charismatic he could convince me of things I didn’t actually believe.”  Steve Jobs’ “reality distortion field” is legendary, and refers to his ability to exert his knowledge, charisma, personal and persistence to convince anyone of anything.  Few others attempting the same technique could pull it off, and would most likely be laughed out of the room.  It’s better to work with reality and make the best of it.
4.  Micromanage every detail. Fortune described Steve Jobs as “a corporate dictator who makes every critical decision — and oodles of seemingly noncritical calls, too.”  Not only did he control every aspect of product design, he also weighed in on the glass stairs in Apple stores (for which he held a patent), the design of the Apple shuttle buses, and the food in the cafeteria, to cite just a few examples.  He even tried to mandate a company uniform.  Micromanaging certainly worked for Steve Jobs, and for Apple.  But, think about every other micromanager that you’ve ever worked with. Did it work for them, or those who worked for them?
5.  Beat people up. Machiavelli provided the philosophical justification for the “ends justify the means” in politics and war; one could argue that Steve Jobs was the personification of that approach in business.  In a Rolling Stone article, Jeff Goodell, an early Apple employee, describes Jobs as having an “abrasive personality” and “unapologetic brutality.”  Numerous former colleagues, including Steve Jurvetson, describe the “hero-shithead rollercoaster” to which Jobs subjected them.  Yet, people tolerated this aspect of “Steve being Steve” because of the other qualities that he brought, not because of any intrinsic goodness (or necessity) of beating people up.
Steve Jobs’ business and technology accomplishments should serve as a great inspiration. As Bill Gates wrote, “The world rarely sees someone who has had the profound impact Steve has had, the effects of which will be felt for many generations to come.” But don’t allow Steve Jobs’ success to lure you into adopting (or accepting) his management style. That’s the route to alienating coworkers and stoking workplace discontent, without delivering any of Steve Jobs’ magical results.  He was Steve Jobs, and you are not. Nor am I, unfortunately.

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