At the root of all innovation is change, and yet time and time again we see how products, technologies, and the people and companies that use them fight it. If a decision’s been made, you can’t unmake it.
Unless you were Steve Jobs.
I often think about what not just Apple, but myriad companies and institutions would be like if they were run by the iconic Apple founder and former CEO who died in 2011 at the age of 56.
Jobs’ career is full of moments of daring, risk-taking, and change-making – even when it cost him time and money. He’s the antithesis of how many tech companies appear to work now, with plans baked in over many months, resulting in hardware and software with code that might carry legacy technology or outmoded thinking.
Change is hard and expensive, but what I think Jobs understood at a deeper and more intuitive level is that consumers don’t care about how or why that oddball feature ended up in their final product. They care about how the product works for them now and how it makes them feel.
The Jobs Bible
For Jobs fans like myself, it’s often instructive to return to the Job’s Bible, also known as Walter Isaacson’s exhaustive and fully-sanctioned (Jobs cooperated right up until he died) biography. It’s full of tales of Jobs realizing an issue or mistake and then making the hard choice to start over.
Jobs actually believed deeply in this method, and, as Isaacson noted, he often said that “everything he had done correctly required a moment when he hit the rewind button. In each case, he had to rework something that he discovered was not perfect.”
Perfectionism was certainly a driving force in his product development, as was how he never stopped thinking about the core products he was developing, like the iPod and iPhone, even when he was sleeping.
That ethos was so powerful, it carried over to his lieutenants, including Jobs’ then-new head of retail Ron Johnson, who woke from sleep with the realization that the first physical Apple Stores they were building were incorrectly organized around each product and not the activities someone might do with them. Naturally, Jobs not only appreciated the late-in-the-game epiphany, he supported it and offered a crucial insight into his own product-development strategy: “We’ve only got one chance to get it right.”
This style of product strategy was evident in the earliest days of the initial Mac development where Jobs fought to include a more powerful Motorola processor (the Motorola 68000 instead of underpowered 6809) than what was in the initial spec.
Sometimes the insights were immediate and, to be honest, a bit brutal. Former Apple employee Amit Chaudhary once shared the story from the days of the original iPod development.
The prototype was essentially done and Jobs wanted it still smaller. The engineers said it couldn’t be made smaller. Jobs reportedly took the prototype, threw it in a fish tank, and, as air bubbles rose from the submerged gadget said, “Those are air bubbles. That means there’s space in there. Make it smaller.”
No one was spared Jobs’ bursts of inspiration.
As Apple was completing the first iPhone, Isaacson’s book recounts how Jobs approached Chief Designer Jony Ive and said, “I didn’t sleep last night because I realized that I just don’t love it.”
The problem was the screen. Since there was no physical keyboard, it was supposed to be the star of the iPhone show, but the Corning Gorilla Glass display was competing with the aluminum chassis.
Ive agreed and soon they were pushing the glass to the edges of the device and, in doing so, forced to rework the antenna, and change the circuit board, and processor placement.
Pushing pause was never a moment of indecision for Jobs. It was clarity. Few people before or since saw the consumer electronics market as clearly and had such an innate, intuitive sense of what consumers would want and love – even before they did.
In general, he also foresaw what they might hate and was constantly in motion to get ahead of those bad choices.
I’m always tickled by the one instance of this that has little to do with technology. Steve Jobs founded Pixar and was at the helm of the company as it created its first feature-length movie: Toy Story. But he was partnered with Disney on the film and, more specifically, impresario Jeffrey Katzenberg.
Katzenberg reportedly had a much more mean-spirited and villainous Woody in mind. That direction almost derailed the project, with Katzenberg hating an early cut (mostly his own fault) and halting production. Jobs knew Katzenberg was wrong and did what he could, at his own personal expense, to keep the project going but with a much kinder and palatable Woody.
The Jobs way:
- Not settling for good enough
- Never let a bad idea go through
- Making changes even if they cost you time and money
- Believing in your own instincts
- Making products that feel special
It’s something every company can learn from, but especially the consumer electronics industry which is full of companies building variations on a handful of ideas with less innovation, less risk-taking, less attention to scrubbing out small details that frustrate consumers, and fewer efforts to polish others that could inspire.
They could all be more like Steve Jobs.