Friday, November 18, 2011

You are not Steve Jobs (and don't try to be him)

Many people better than I have commented on the passing of Steve Jobs a few weeks ago, I too was sorry to see him go. He touched my life (indirectly): I’m writing this on a Mac, we have an iPad in the house, I might not like iPhones but my new Android phone clearly owes a lot to Jobs vision (i.e. it is a copy).

Reading, watching and listening to the many obituaries about Jobs I started to get worried. My concern is simply that Jobs was not a good role model. His phenomenal success guarantees that more than a few people will attempt to emulate him, in so doing they will sow the seeds of their own failure and make the lives of their employees miserable in doing so.

Here are a few examples.

Jobs was a perfectionist: products didn’t get launched unless he approved of them. However, being a perfectionist is something of a luxury, Apple existed, had revenue, had a brand. If you are a start-up perfection is just too expense.

Jobs started the MacIntosh project because he had Lisa taken from him: MacIntosh and Lisa could only exist because Apple had revenue from the Apple II line.

The first Macs were far from perfect; the team undoubtedly learned from Lisa - what we might call a pivot in Lean Start-Up terms but not quite that clean cut.

Jobs demanded the first Macs would work in 64k, the team knew it needed 128k and Jobs, late in the day gave in. Secretly the team engineered the Mac to accept 512k which is what it really needed.

The moral of the story: there is more to it than being a perfectionist. Even perfectionists need to compromise sometimes. Surrounding yourself with good people helps.

More recently the original iPhone was launched as a 2G GSM phone, without features like cut and paste. It seems incredible now. Apple launched an under-spec phone and refined it in the market. Which leads us to....

Jobs would spurn products/employees who he didn’t think were up to scratch: if employees are loyal to the company and to you, and if you have a deep talent pool, and (perhaps) the stock-options are worth a lot you might get away with this. Otherwise its a sure fire route to staff turn-over.

Jobs may have been a perfectionist but, it seems to me, he wasn’t a perfectionist about quantity of features, quite the opposite. Apple products are simple because they lack so much, once launched they are refined and elaborated in the market.

Jobs didn’t use customer understanding or focus groups to tell him what the public needed. He was a visionary who just knew. This is perhaps my greatest fear: to read some of the obituaries is to condemn the whole discipline of Product Management to the dustbin in favour of senior managers who know what is right for customers - a disease too many companies suffer from.

This argument doesn’t stand up. Jobs was an, perhaps unique, visionary who did understand what customers wanted. He had an ability to see what technology could do and how people could use it. Few of us are blessed with this ability. Thus we have the discipline of Product Management to help us.

Jobs may have shunned market and customer research but his Product teams didn’t. In some cases Apple conducted internal, closed, demonstrations of new products; they used their own staff for research. And, as I just said: Apple launched products and rapidly refined them in the market.

Apple also had many products which were not hits, with and without Jobs: Apple III, Lisa, Newton, Mac portable, Pippin, Apple TV, A/UX, Pink, MobileMe - the iPod took several years to break through and even the Mac came close to failure on several occasions - and iTunes is probably the worst piece of Mac software on the market.

OK, Jobs was not even at the company when several of these products launched but he sowed the seeds and above all it was his company, a culture he had created. And while he wasn’t at Apple he founded NeXT which wasn’t exactly a success either.

But look again: Apple and Jobs were prepared to try things. Some worked, some didn’t. Some took a long time to come to success. Some failed but somewhere, in Jobs head, deep in the bowls of Apple, lessons were learned for future products. We will never know just how much the Mac team learned from Lisa, or how much MacOS X learned from Pink, or even how much the iPad learned from Newton.

Apple and Jobs could do this because they had deep pockets, they had revenue.

Lets put this simply: as much as you might like to think you can emulate Steve Jobs you probably can’t. What worked for Jobs worked for him because he was unique in vision, timing and experience. Just because Jobs could ignore volumes of business advice, armies of experts and accepted wisdom doesn’t mean you can.

The lesson I would take from Jobs and Apple is not about perfectionism, design, arrogance, or the super-CEOs but about the willingness to try something simple, iterate and refine in the market.