If you talk about uncertainty, humility, and market feedback long enough, you’re sure to crash headfirst into the legend of Steve Jobs. People hold up Apple in general, and Steve Jobs in particular, as a model of a certain kind of deliberate process, one in which visionary leadership and force of will, combined with detail-oriented planning and an obsessive pursuit of perfection, are able to dictate taste in the marketplace. “Where is the experimentation?” people ask. “Where is the humility?”
To some extent one has to acknowledge a certain level of genius in Steve Jobs. Also worth noting is that very few leaders possess those same qualities—despite their proclamations to the contrary. And yet, for those who believe they possess a Steve Jobs-like amount of insight, little will dissuade them.
Overcoming The Steve Jobs Myth
A deeper look reveals a more complex story behind the Steve Jobs genius myth. It’s true that Apple has created some of the most successful consumer products ever. However, its successes are, for the most part, ones in which one person interacts with one machine to do one thing. Apple’s failures in software (remember MobileMe?) and social networking (Ping) demonstrate that the development process that serves the company well in some spheres is not sufficient to deal with most complex software-based services. iTunes, formerly a model of simplicity and power, is now routinely held up as an example of corporate bloatware.
Apple’s traditional process, however, is filled with experimentation; it just experiments in secret. Rumors that Apple was working on a phone circulated for years before the first iPhone shipped. The design press is filled with photos of early Apple prototypes. Prototypes, as powerful as they are, can teach you only so much. They can’t reveal what happens when thousands of people are using your software at the same time; they can’t help you discover and capture the value presented by emergent behavior. As with the Amazon Fire Phone, covert efforts can reveal only so much. At some point, the ideas have to be tested in the wild.
The Power Of Cultural Values
What Apple can teach us, though, is the power of vision and the ability of vision and culture to create alignment. A manager who worked at an Apple partner company in the 1990s told us a story of working with an Apple team to create a product bundle. Apple had sought out this partner because Apple wanted to include one of the company’s products in the bundle. But first, the Apple managers wanted changes to the partner product. Specifically, they objected to the setup process the product required. “It has to work out of the box,” an Apple manager said, expressing the cultural value Apple places on customer experience. “If it doesn’t work out of the box,” he said, “we don’t ship it.” This is the power of alignment. It’s a cultural value that everyone in the firm knows and that guides decision making. This obsession— with quality, with design, with out-of-the-box experience—wasn’t something only Steve Jobs delivered. It was something he was able to make the entire firm deliver.
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