As I pen this piece on the legendary Steve Jobs, the most innovative tech-management visionary in our lifetime, Apple has launched its latest range of products like iPhone X, iPhone 8, iPhone 8 Plus and Apple Watch 3. The world will once again be exposed to the magic of products fathered by Jobs.
One is often left wondering how one person could virtually transform the world of personal computing, animated movies, music, phones, tablet computing, retail stores and digital publishing. Imagine what more would he have done had his life not been cut short by cancer at the age of 56! But one can draw more than solace from the fact that Steve Jobs’ creation, Apple, continues to be a magically mesmerising company even six years after his demise.
Isn’t it time to decipher the DNA that Jobs gifted to Apple? That work culture continues to drive Apple from success to success. It is a highly demanding culture with no place for mediocrity. It is an open secret that Steve Jobs was a difficult person to work with. All seekers of perfection are.
Steve Jobs’ biographer Walter Isaacson, who has authored the life stories of Henry Kissinger, Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein as well, enables us to vividly view Jobs’ mind at work. There are lessons galore for business leaders, managers and technologists. I am picking up just a few.
Though Jobs created several time-altering products, he always considered creating an enduring company like Apple his biggest achievement.
Un-wavering focus personified Steve Jobs. His Zen training enabled him to keep at bay all distractions which included family, colleagues, friends and even his own health and legal challenges. He was not in the business of pleasing the world at the expense of his goals and objectives. Now we can understand how he kept churning out ever superior products as long as he lived.
The narrative hitherto could easily prompt most readers to believe that Jobs lived a difficult and complex life. While that may be true, Jobs was all for simplicity in his products. He took great pains to ensure that users of his products, whether the Macintosh or the iPad or a plethora of others, found it easy to use them. For this genius, simplicity was the ultimate satisfaction. Users and tech-experts acknowledge that Microsoft Word feels primitive when compared to Apple software.
To illustrate the point, let me quote Steve Jobs’ biographer Isaacson in the next paragraph.
‘Jobs aimed for the simplicity that comes from conquering, rather than merely ignoring, complexity. Achieving this depth of simplicity, he realised, would produce a machine that felt as if it deferred to users in a friendly way, rather than challenging them. “It takes a lot of hard work,” he said, “to make something simple, to truly understand the underlying challenges and come up with elegant solutions.”’
The above quote from Jobs really appeals to the poet in me. A poet has to state even the most profound emotion as simply as he can if he wishes to be understood by the common reader or listener. To reach people’s hearts the poet needs to come down from his high horse. So being simple can be most difficult.
Analysing the series of successful product launches by Jobs, we realise that the master did not believe in resting on his laurels. Most of our young managers turn complacent after minor success. The hunger to keep on winning seems to wither away. What a pity that several corporate careers die even before they blossom!
Jobs believed in raising the bar all the time not only for himself but also for his colleagues. There was no place for mediocre in his scheme of things. Instead he chose to bend the reality and made his colleagues complete tasks in four days for which they wanted months. This ability to push people to the pinnacle of their hidden potential came to be known as Jobs’ Reality Distortion Field. Rules for lesser mortals did not apply to him and he convinced his team that those did not apply to them either.
Isaacson recalls, “An early example was when Jobs was on the night shift at Atari and pushed Steve Wozniak to create a game called Breakout. Woz said it would take months, but Jobs stared at him and insisted he could do it in four days. Woz knew that was impossible, but he ended up doing it.”
That is how Jobs spearheaded a paradigm shift in computer history with resources which were virtually nothing in comparison to the then technology giants like IBM and Xerox.
This being the background, should we not perceive Steve Jobs as a maniac pursuing commercial gains? Far from it, the maestro always put products before profits.
Isaacson describes Jobs’ credo so aptly: ‘When Jobs and his small team designed the original Macintosh, in the early 1980s, his injunction was to make it “insanely great.” He never spoke of profit maximisation or cost trade-offs. “Don’t worry about price, just specify the computer’s abilities,” he told the original team leader. At his first retreat with the Macintosh team, he began by writing a maxim on his whiteboard: “Don’t compromise.” The machine that resulted cost too much and led to Jobs’s ouster from Apple. But the Macintosh also “put a dent in the universe,” as he said, by accelerating the home computer revolution. And in the long run he got the balance right: focus on making the product great and the profits will follow.’ He obviously returned to Apple to scale still greater heights.
How many companies think on these lines? An age old metaphor for innovation runs thus: Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door. But few have bothered to pay heed to this piece of wisdom. Jobs did and made himself immortal.
To keep bettering himself, Jobs did not hesitate from cannibalising his own products to introduce advanced ones – the hallmark of a truly innovative company. Instead of upgrading the original iMac incrementally, Jobs leapfrogged to an integrated system – the combination of iTunes, the iTunes Store and the iPod which transformed the music industry.
The momentous success of iPod would have made any other businessman and his company to feel perched atop the moon, with all life’s work done. But not Jobs. He was only spurred to forestall any danger to it from copycats. He got worried that mobile phone makers would start adding music players to their handsets. So he chose to kill sales of his iPod by creating the iPhone. “If we don’t cannibalize ourselves, someone else will,” he said. This is what smart managers call being on the ball, 24X7X365.
Jobs always displayed tremendous foresight. But more than that, he proved his ability to execute paradigm changes in his products. He was not a mere dreamer or seer. He was a doer.
Despite being, so to say, a digital creature, Steve Jobs ran a rigorous system of face-to-face interaction with his colleagues. “There’s a temptation in our networked age to think that ideas can be developed by e-mail and iChat…That’s crazy. Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions. You run into someone, you ask what they’re doing, you say ‘Wow,’ and soon you’re cooking up all sorts of ideas.” Biographer Isaacson writes that Jobs had the Pixar building designed to promote unplanned encounters and collaborations.
Technology is a great tool but it can be isolating also. The tech-master knew that too well. Despite his frequent brash behaviour, Jobs never ignored the human touch in his business. He created mind-boggling products for his customers always thinking that he was making them for himself. So he gave his best shot and kept the glitches out.
Learning all about Jobs’ genius and contribution to business is a job in itself. However, this much should do for now.
Basant Chaudhary is a Poet, Writer, The Chairman of BLC and Basant Chaudhary Foundation. (email@example.com)