Sunday, October 28, 2012
Tuesday, October 23, 2012
Wednesday, June 6, 2012
Silos are necessary in companies. They provide the structure that allows companies to work. Every company is split into divisions, departments, or groups, such as sales, technology, and finance. This structure allows expertise in different areas. In companies, silos tend to be places where information, focus (another word for choosing priorities), and control flow up and down. But company silos also cause problems--that same structure prevents the flow of information, focus, and control outward. And in order for a company to work efficiently, decisions need to be made across silos.
There are three aspects to the organizational silos barrier:
• Nonaligned priorities
• Lack of information flow
• Lack of coordinated decision making across silos
Silos occur naturally because of the way organizations are structured. Each part of a company reports up to a manager who has responsibility only for that part of the company. But none of the parts is truly independent. Each relies on others to perform its function, and the company performs well only when each of these sometimes many parts or units work closely together.
This kind of company structure is also necessary because it keeps accountability and responsibility in the silo. It also fosters a sense of independence and pride of ownership, which is a good thing. Senior management’s role is to look broadly at the organization; a department manager’s is to look deeply into his or her own area. The problem is, doing this creates what I call “tower vision.” Managers tend to look up and down only within their own silos--never looking around or across--so all they see, and tend to think about, is their own silo. They don’t know what is happening elsewhere in the organization or how their actions impact other areas. They act primarily in the interest of their own silo.
This makes sense. After all, when you are a division manager, your priorities naturally and appropriately center on your division. You may not even be thinking about other groups. And when you have to make decisions that may affect other silos, you are conditioned to think about your own silo first.
Just because a course of action makes sense for a silo manager doesn’t mean it is the best way to do things or even in the best interests of the entire company. From a company point of view, silos need to work together. But too often that doesn’t happen. Problems arise when departments do not share the same priorities, knowledge, or information, and when managers work in an independent, entrepreneurial manner--in short, when people are operating with tower vision.
You see the organizational silo at work all the time. Every manager is part of a silo and has been frustrated when his or her priorities did not align with someone else’s in a different department. (Can you remember telling a colleague that whatever you needed was reallyimportant? Or telling another colleague that you were doing something that has a higher priority? We have all been on both sides of the equation.)
Customers also see the organizational silo barrier at work. Think about the process of buying a new car. The salesman at the dealership sells you a car but has to rely on a computer system to tell you if it is in stock. The dealership’s sales department is run by a sales manager, who has no control over how the computer system works. She relies on another unit to keep technology running smoothly.
The salesman also needs to know how quickly he can get the car to you. This is also not in his manager’s control. Even if the auto manufacturer actually has a car in stock in the color and with all the features that you want, and even if the computer inventory program is accurate, it is up to the distribution department, under the control of yet another manager, to get the car to you. And if you want to finance the car, that is yet another department--and another department the salesman and his manager have no control over. It is only when all of these units within the dealership operate successfully together that the salesman is able to make you happy with the purchase of your new car.
Breaking The Barrier
To break the organizational silos barrier, the goal is not to destroy silos themselves but to eliminate the problems that silos cause. That is a critical distinction. Managers may be tempted to think that getting rid of silos is the answer. But the structure that silos bring is very important in terms of creating accountability and responsibility within the organization. Silo managers know clearly what they are responsible for. Cooperation, communication, and collaboration are the three keys to working across silos. Those are components that ideally any successful working relationship would have, but they are must-haves if you are going to break the organizational silos barrier.
You can break this barrier when knowledge, focus, and control are shared among more than one silo. The solution is about losing tower vision and being able to look at--and see--things from a different person’s or department’s point of view.
Breaking this barrier is also not about proving who is “wrong” and who is “right.” It is perfectly understandable why silo heads have different priorities and why they believe that they are doing the best thing for the company when they are doing the best thing for their silo. When managers have been given responsibility and authority, it is only natural that they will choose to exercise them--and not always in moderation. When decisions to reprioritize do get made, it is because collaboration or communication has allowed a shift in perspective.
Human nature forces people to want to do the best they can within their own “sandbox” at the expense of everybody else. “Owning” a function or a part of a business naturally brings forth a manager’s entrepreneurial spirit, and you don’t get to be head of a silo without being competitive. Managers rationalize their lack of cooperation as “I’ve been given this area to run as I see fit and I need to do the best job I possibly can."
This is easier said than done, of course. We are, after all, in typical silo heads talking about a group of very focused, highly competitive individuals. A good process to remove barriers highlights where cooperation is not occurring, and it points out the consequences of those lapses. It puts in place measures to ensure that decisions are not made in isolation going forward.
Tuesday, June 5, 2012
Management knows it and so does Wall Street: The year-to-year viability of a company depends on its ability to innovate. Yet many companies have not yet learned to manage innovation strategically. The companies we've found to have the strongest innovation track records do things differently: Rather than hoping that their future will emerge from a collection of ad hoc, stand-alone efforts that compete with one another for time, money, attention, and prestige, they manage for "total innovation."
One tool we've developed to help companies manage their innovation portfolio is the Innovation Ambition Matrix (see the chart below). It is a refinement of a classic diagram devised by the mathematician H. Igor Ansoff to help companies allocate funds among growth initiatives. Ansoff's matrix clarified the notion that tactics should differ according to whether a firm was launching a new product, entering a new market, or both. Our version replaces Ansoff's binary choices of product and market (old versus new) with a range of values. This acknowledges that the novelty of a company's offerings (on the x axis) and the novelty of its customer markets (on the y axis) are a matter of degree. We have overlaid three levels of distance from the company's current, bottom-left reality.
In the band of activity at the lower left of the matrix are core innovation initiatives — efforts to make incremental changes to existing products and incremental inroads into new markets. Whether in the form of new packaging (such as Nabisco's 100-calorie packets of Oreos for on-the-go snackers), slight reformulations (as when Dow AgroSciences launched one of its herbicides as a liquid suspension rather than a dry powder), or added service convenience (for example, replacing pallets with shrink-wrapping to reduce shipping charges), such innovations draw on assets the company already has in place.
At the opposite corner of the matrix are transformational initiatives, designed to create new offers — if not whole new businesses — to serve new markets and customer needs. These are the innovations that, when successful, make headlines: Think of iTunes, the Tata Nano, and the Starbucks in-store experience. These sorts of innovations, also called breakthrough, disruptive, or game changing, generally require that the company call on unfamiliar assets — for example, building capabilities to gain a deeper understanding of customers, to communicate about products that have no direct antecedents, and to develop markets that aren't yet mature.
In the middle are adjacent innovations, which can share characteristics with core and transformational innovations. An adjacent innovation involves leveraging something the company does well into a new space. Procter & Gamble's Swiffer is a case in point. It arose from a set of needs P&G knew well and built on customers' assumption that the proper tool for cleaning floors is a long-handled mop. But it used a novel technology to take the solution to a new customer set and generate new revenue streams. Adjacent innovations allow a company to draw on existing capabilities but necessitate putting those capabilities to new uses. They require fresh, proprietary insight into customer needs, demand trends, market structure, competitive dynamics, technology trends, and other market variables.
The Innovation Ambition Matrix offers no inherent prescription. Its power lies in the two exercises it facilitates:
- First, it gives managers a framework for surveying all the initiatives the business has under way: How many are being pursued in each realm, and how much investment is going to each type of innovation?
- Second, it gives managers a way to discuss the right overall ambition for the company's innovation portfolio.
For one company — say, a consumer goods producer — succeeding as a great innovator might mean investing in initiatives that tend toward the lower left, such as small extensions to existing product lines. A high-tech company might move toward the upper right, taking bigger risks on more-audacious innovations for the chance of bigger payoffs. Although this may sound obvious, few organizations think about the best level of innovation to target, and fewer still manage to achieve it.
Tuesday, April 3, 2012
If you're an experienced professional, it can be tough to find a job in today's market. Sally (name has been changed) was laid off six months ago. She was a training manager for a large corporation, advising middle and senior managers on career development. She'd worked for her company for a dozen years and was regarded by her boss and her peers as a good performer. Located at the home office, she developed long-term relationship with her clients. Because management and professional services have traditionally been delivered face-to-face, Sally thought her job and location were reasonably safe. But they weren't.
Looking for a job was harder than Sally thought. She didn't just face tough competition from younger job seekers. The market dynamics that pushed her out of a job were happening across the whole marketplace for her profession. Global IT and increasing global pressures have dramatically changed the game. More people and companies are increasingly comfortable with virtual collaboration and remote professional services. As a result, many companies cut costs in those areas, just as they outsourced manufacturing decades ago. Between 2007 and 2008, financial, information, and professional service jobs were outsourced at an average rate of 5.4% (PDF). John McCarthy of Forrester Research predicts that at least 3.3 million white collar jobs and $136 billion in wages will shift from the U.S. to low-cost countries by 2015.
This shifts knowledge work from a craft into a knowledge production system. Where Sally was a skillful collaborator integrated into her division and providing tailored services, the new low-skilled remote staff advises clients with a semiautomated template of choices.
You might think you are immune to this shift if you are a manager, but that's not the case. This is a fundamental shift in how professional and managerial work gets done, and you can't merely sharpen your skills to stay competitive. You need to do something to distinguish your skills from "everyday" professional services.
We've known for a decade or more that this shift to more production-engineered knowledge work was underway. Like most of us, you probably couldn't have anticipated how much it could impact local job markets. It's not easy, but you can still chart a career through this difficult this environment.
- Get on the cutting edge of your discipline. It's tempting to concentrate on your core skills. But if your previous company isn't keeping your skills at your high-cost location, chances are high that prospective employers aren't either. You'll need to differentiate yourself. Every discipline evolves. You don't have to be a "fresh young thing" to bring new ideas and approaches to prospective employers. In fact, cutting-edge, seasoned expertise might be even more valuable. Learning about new developments in your field will be more engaging than pounding the pavement for your old job. Niche professional expertise is less likely to be reengineered and sent to an offshore or low-cost provider. Expertise that directly supports corporate leadership is also likely to remain in its current location because of its centrality to the leadership center of the organization.
- Become a contractor. If cost is a driving force for potential employers, you can still be cost competitive. As a consultant, you absorb the costs of benefits, and hiring you is a low-commitment proposition for employers. As you prospect for new clients, you can test out different combinations of your new cutting-edge focus. And as a consultant, your internal experience is a plus. Many companies in this transition hire back former employees as contract workers.
- Don't sell yourself short. It's tempting to get a job lower than your expertise. But with this global shift, de-skilling yourself is not likely to be an effective way to stay competitive because it puts you in direct competition with the low-cost, less-skilled competitors that are changing your field. Yes, as a contractor, you'll likely do some things that only use some of your skills, but it leaves you clear to continue to develop your edge. You offer your clients more for less.
- Find a market niche. A CPA was laid off from her high-paying, high-pressure job as comptroller in a small private sector company. When she became a consultant, she shifted her focus to accounting in nonprofits. Even though the accounting aspect of her niche is below her level of ability, she serves as the top advisor to the senior management team on the organizations' financial health and the potential financial impact of their decisions. Although she makes less money, it is better than competing with the literally hundreds of applicants for comptroller jobs. Her clients appreciate the fact that she can speak the language of senior management. She chose nonprofits that she had an emotional interest in and loves contributing to something she cares about. Finding a niche not only distinguishes you, but your expertise will be genuinely appreciated.
You're not just competing against other professionals; you're competing against the shifts in the market itself. What other market-level shifts do you see in impacting your job search, and what other strategies can you think of to distinguish yourself from both other job seekers and market trends?
Saturday, March 24, 2012
His saga is the entrepreneurial creation myth writ large: Steve Jobs cofounded Apple in his parents’ garage in 1976, was ousted in 1985, returned to rescue it from near bankruptcy in 1997, and by the time he died, in October 2011, had built it into the world’s most valuable company. Along the way he helped to transform seven industries: personal computing, animated movies, music, phones, tablet computing, retail stores, and digital publishing. He thus belongs in the pantheon of America’s great innovators, along with Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and Walt Disney. None of these men was a saint, but long after their personalities are forgotten, history will remember how they applied imagination to technology and business.
In the months since my biography of Jobs came out, countless commentators have tried to draw management lessons from it. Some of those readers have been insightful, but I think that many of them (especially those with no experience in entrepreneurship) fixate too much on the rough edges of his personality. The essence of Jobs, I think, is that his personality was integral to his way of doing business. He acted as if the normal rules didn’t apply to him, and the passion, intensity, and extreme emotionalism he brought to everyday life were things he also poured into the products he made. His petulance and impatience were part and parcel of his perfectionism.
One of the last times I saw him, after I had finished writing most of the book, I asked him again about his tendency to be rough on people. “Look at the results,” he replied. “These are all smart people I work with, and any of them could get a top job at another place if they were truly feeling brutalized. But they don’t.” Then he paused for a few moments and said, almost wistfully, “And we got some amazing things done.” Indeed, he and Apple had had a string of hits over the past dozen years that was greater than that of any other innovative company in modern times: iMac, iPod, iPod nano, iTunes Store, Apple Stores, MacBook, iPhone, iPad, App Store, OS X Lion—not to mention every Pixar film. And as he battled his final illness, Jobs was surrounded by an intensely loyal cadre of colleagues who had been inspired by him for years and a very loving wife, sister, and four children.
So I think the real lessons from Steve Jobs have to be drawn from looking at what he actually accomplished. I once asked him what he thought was his most important creation, thinking he would answer the iPad or the Macintosh. Instead he said it was Apple the company. Making an enduring company, he said, was both far harder and more important than making a great product. How did he do it? Business schools will be studying that question a century from now. Here are what I consider the keys to his success.
When Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, it was producing a random array of computers and peripherals, including a dozen different versions of the Macintosh. After a few weeks of product review sessions, he’d finally had enough. “Stop!” he shouted. “This is crazy.” He grabbed a Magic Marker, padded in his bare feet to a whiteboard, and drew a two-by-two grid. “Here’s what we need,” he declared. Atop the two columns, he wrote “Consumer” and “Pro.” He labeled the two rows “Desktop” and “Portable.” Their job, he told his team members, was to focus on four great products, one for each quadrant. All other products should be canceled. There was a stunned silence. But by getting Apple to focus on making just four computers, he saved the company. “Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do,” he told me. “That’s true for companies, and it’s true for products.”
After he righted the company, Jobs began taking his “top 100” people on a retreat each year. On the last day, he would stand in front of a whiteboard (he loved whiteboards, because they gave him complete control of a situation and they engendered focus) and ask, “What are the 10 things we should be doing next?” People would fight to get their suggestions on the list. Jobs would write them down—and then cross off the ones he decreed dumb. After much jockeying, the group would come up with a list of 10. Then Jobs would slash the bottom seven and announce, “We can only do three.”
Focus was ingrained in Jobs’s personality and had been honed by his Zen training. He relentlessly filtered out what he considered distractions. Colleagues and family members would at times be exasperated as they tried to get him to deal with issues—a legal problem, a medical diagnosis—they considered important. But he would give a cold stare and refuse to shift his laserlike focus until he was ready.
Near the end of his life, Jobs was visited at home by Larry Page, who was about to resume control of Google, the company he had cofounded. Even though their companies were feuding, Jobs was willing to give some advice. “The main thing I stressed was focus,” he recalled. Figure out what Google wants to be when it grows up, he told Page. “It’s now all over the map. What are the five products you want to focus on? Get rid of the rest, because they’re dragging you down. They’re turning you into Microsoft. They’re causing you to turn out products that are adequate but not great.” Page followed the advice. In January 2012 he told employees to focus on just a few priorities, such as Android and Google+, and to make them “beautiful,” the way Jobs would have done.
Jobs’ Zen like ability to focus was accompanied by the related instinct to simplify things by zeroing in on their essence and eliminating unnecessary components. “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,” declared Apple’s first marketing brochure. To see what that means, compare any Apple software with, say, Microsoft Word, which keeps getting uglier and more cluttered with no intuitive navigational ribbons and intrusive features. It is a reminder of the glory of Apple’s quest for simplicity.
Jobs learned to admire simplicity when he was working the night shift at Atari as a college dropout. Atari’s games came with no manual and needed to be uncomplicated enough that a stoned freshman could figure them out. The only instructions for its Star Trek game were: “1. Insert quarter. 2. Avoid Klingons.” His love of simplicity in design was refined at design conferences he attended at the Aspen Institute in the late 1970s on a campus built in the Bauhaus style, which emphasized clean lines and functional design devoid of frills or distractions.
When Jobs visited Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center and saw the plans for a computer that had a graphical user interface and a mouse, he set about making the design both more intuitive (his team enabled the user to drag and drop documents and folders on a virtual desktop) and simpler. For example, the Xerox mouse had three buttons and cost $300; Jobs went to a local industrial design firm and told one of its founders, Dean Hovey, that he wanted a simple, single-button model that cost $15. Hovey complied.
Jobs aimed for the simplicity that comes from conquering, rather than merely ignoring, complexity. Achieving this depth of simplicity, he realized, 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.”
In Jony Ive, Apple’s industrial designer, Jobs met his soul mate in the quest for deep rather than superficial simplicity. They knew that simplicity is not merely a minimalist style or the removal of clutter. In order to eliminate screws, buttons, or excess navigational screens, it was necessary to understand profoundly the role each element played. “To be truly simple, you have to go really deep,” Ive explained. “For example, to have no screws on something, you can end up having a product that is so convoluted and so complex. The better way is to go deeper with the simplicity, to understand everything about it and how it’s manufactured.”
During the design of the iPod interface, Jobs tried at every meeting to find ways to cut clutter. He insisted on being able to get to whatever he wanted in three clicks. One navigation screen, for example, asked users whether they wanted to search by song, album, or artist. “Why do we need that screen?” Jobs demanded. The designers realized they didn’t. “There would be times when we’d rack our brains on a user interface problem, and he would go, ‘Did you think of this?’” says Tony Fadell, who led the iPod team. “And then we’d all go, ‘Holy shit.’ He’d redefine the problem or approach, and our little problem would go away.” At one point Jobs made the simplest of all suggestions: Let’s get rid of the on/off button. At first the team members were taken aback, but then they realized the button was unnecessary. The device would gradually power down if it wasn’t being used and would spring to life when reengaged.
Likewise, when Jobs was shown a cluttered set of proposed navigation screens for iDVD, which allowed users to burn video onto a disk, he jumped up and drew a simple rectangle on a whiteboard. “Here’s the new application,” he said. “It’s got one window. You drag your video into the window. Then you click the button that says ‘Burn.’ That’s it. That’s what we’re going to make.”
In looking for industries or categories ripe for disruption, Jobs always asked who was making products more complicated than they should be. In 2001 portable music players and ways to acquire songs online fit that description, leading to the iPod and the iTunes Store. Mobile phones were next. Jobs would grab a phone at a meeting and rant (correctly) that nobody could possibly figure out how to navigate half the features, including the address book. At the end of his career he was setting his sights on the television industry, which had made it almost impossible for people to click on a simple device to watch what they wanted when they wanted.
Take Responsibility End to End
Jobs knew that the best way to achieve simplicity was to make sure that hardware, software, and peripheral devices were seamlessly integrated. An Apple ecosystem—an iPod connected to a Mac with iTunes software, for example—allowed devices to be simpler, syncing to be smoother, and glitches to be rarer. The more complex tasks, such as making new playlists, could be done on the computer, allowing the iPod to have fewer functions and buttons.
Jobs and Apple took end-to-end responsibility for the user experience—something too few companies do. From the performance of the ARM microprocessor in the iPhone to the act of buying that phone in an Apple Store, every aspect of the customer experience was tightly linked together. Both Microsoft in the 1980s and Google in the past few years have taken a more open approach that allows their operating systems and software to be used by various hardware manufacturers. That has sometimes proved the better business model. But Jobs fervently believed that it was a recipe for (to use his technical term) crappier products. “People are busy,” he said. “They have other things to do than think about how to integrate their computers and devices.”
Part of Jobs’s compulsion to take responsibility for what he called “the whole widget” stemmed from his personality, which was very controlling. But it was also driven by his passion for perfection and making elegant products. He got hives, or worse, when contemplating the use of great Apple software on another company’s uninspired hardware, and he was equally allergic to the thought that unapproved apps or content might pollute the perfection of an Apple device. It was an approach that did not always maximize short-term profits, but in a world filled with junky devices, inscrutable error messages, and annoying interfaces, it led to astonishing products marked by delightful user experiences. Being in the Apple ecosystem could be as sublime as walking in one of the Zen gardens of Kyoto that Jobs loved, and neither experience was created by worshipping at the altar of openness or by letting a thousand flowers bloom. Sometimes it’s nice to be in the hands of a control freak.
When Behind, Leapfrog
The mark of an innovative company is not only that it comes up with new ideas first. It also knows how to leapfrog when it finds itself behind. That happened when Jobs built the original iMac. He focused on making it useful for managing a user’s photos and videos, but it was left behind when dealing with music. People with PCs were downloading and swapping music and then ripping and burning their own CDs. The iMac’s slot drive couldn’t burn CDs. “I felt like a dope,” he said. “I thought we had missed it.”
But instead of merely catching up by upgrading the iMac’s CD drive, he decided to create an integrated system that would transform the music industry. The result was the combination of iTunes, the iTunes Store, and the iPod, which allowed users to buy, share, manage, store, and play music better than they could with any other devices.
After the iPod became a huge success, Jobs spent little time relishing it. Instead he began to worry about what might endanger it. One possibility was that mobile phone makers would start adding music players to their handsets. So he cannibalized iPod sales by creating the iPhone. “If we don’t cannibalize ourselves, someone else will,” he said.
Put Products Before Profits
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 maximization 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.
John Sculley, who ran Apple from 1983 to 1993, was a marketing and sales executive from Pepsi. He focused more on profit maximization than on product design after Jobs left, and Apple gradually declined. “I have my own theory about why decline happens at companies,” Jobs told me: They make some great products, but then the sales and marketing people take over the company, because they are the ones who can juice up profits. “When the sales guys run the company, the product guys don’t matter so much, and a lot of them just turn off. It happened at Apple when Sculley came in, which was my fault, and it happened when Ballmer took over at Microsoft.”
When Jobs returned, he shifted Apple’s focus back to making innovative products: the sprightly iMac, the PowerBook, and then the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad. As he explained, “My passion has been to build an enduring company where people were motivated to make great products. Everything else was secondary. Sure, it was great to make a profit, because that was what allowed you to make great products. But the products, not the profits, were the motivation. Sculley flipped these priorities to where the goal was to make money. It’s a subtle difference, but it ends up meaning everything—the people you hire, who gets promoted, what you discuss in meetings.”
Don’t Be a Slave To Focus Groups
When Jobs took his original Macintosh team on its first retreat, one member asked whether they should do some market research to see what customers wanted. “No,” Jobs replied, “because customers don’t know what they want until we’ve shown them.” He invoked Henry Ford’s line “If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, ‘A faster horse!’”
Caring deeply about what customers want is much different from continually asking them what they want; it requires intuition and instinct about desires that have not yet formed. “Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page,” Jobs explained. Instead of relying on market research, he honed his version of empathy—an intimate intuition about the desires of his customers. He developed his appreciation for intuition—feelings that are based on accumulated experiential wisdom—while he was studying Buddhism in India as a college dropout. “The people in the Indian countryside don’t use their intellect like we do; they use their intuition instead,” he recalled. “Intuition is a very powerful thing—more powerful than intellect, in my opinion.”
Sometimes that meant that Jobs used a one-person focus group: himself. He made products that he and his friends wanted. For example, there were many portable music players around in 2000, but Jobs felt they were all lame, and as a music fanatic he wanted a simple device that would allow him to carry a thousand songs in his pocket. “We made the iPod for ourselves,” he said, “and when you’re doing something for yourself, or your best friend or family, you’re not going to cheese out.”
Jobs’s (in)famous ability to push people to do the impossible was dubbed by colleagues his Reality Distortion Field, after an episode of Star Trek in which aliens create a convincing alternative reality through sheer mental force. 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.
Those who did not know Jobs interpreted the Reality Distortion Field as a euphemism for bullying and lying. But those who worked with him admitted that the trait, infuriating as it might be, led them to perform extraordinary feats. Because Jobs felt that life’s ordinary rules didn’t apply to him, he could inspire his team to change the course of computer history with a small fraction of the resources that Xerox or IBM had. “It was a self-fulfilling distortion,” recalls Debi Coleman, a member of the original Mac team who won an award one year for being the employee who best stood up to Jobs. “You did the impossible because you didn’t realize it was impossible.”
One day Jobs marched into the cubicle of Larry Kenyon, the engineer who was working on the Macintosh operating system, and complained that it was taking too long to boot up. Kenyon started to explain why reducing the boot-up time wasn’t possible, but Jobs cut him off. “If it would save a person’s life, could you find a way to shave 10 seconds off the boot time?” he asked. Kenyon allowed that he probably could. Jobs went to a whiteboard and showed that if five million people were using the Mac and it took 10 seconds extra to turn it on every day, that added up to 300 million or so hours a year—the equivalent of at least 100 lifetimes a year. After a few weeks Kenyon had the machine booting up 28 seconds faster.
When Jobs was designing the iPhone, he decided that he wanted its face to be a tough, scratchproof glass, rather than plastic. He met with Wendell Weeks, the CEO of Corning, who told him that Corning had developed a chemical exchange process in the 1960s that led to what it dubbed “Gorilla glass.” Jobs replied that he wanted a major shipment of Gorilla glass in six months. Weeks said that Corning was not making the glass and didn’t have that capacity. “Don’t be afraid,” Jobs replied. This stunned Weeks, who was unfamiliar with Jobs’s Reality Distortion Field. He tried to explain that a false sense of confidence would not overcome engineering challenges, but Jobs had repeatedly shown that he didn’t accept that premise. He stared unblinking at Weeks. “Yes, you can do it,” he said. “Get your mind around it. You can do it.” Weeks recalls that he shook his head in astonishment and then called the managers of Corning’s facility in Harrodsburg, Kentucky, which had been making LCD displays, and told them to convert immediately to making Gorilla glass full-time. “We did it in under six months,” he says. “We put our best scientists and engineers on it, and we just made it work.” As a result, every piece of glass on an iPhone or an iPad is made in America by Corning.
Jobs’s early mentor Mike Markkula wrote him a memo in 1979 that urged three principles. The first two were “empathy” and “focus.” The third was an awkward word, “impute,” but it became one of Jobs’s key doctrines. He knew that people form an opinion about a product or a company on the basis of how it is presented and packaged. “Mike taught me that people do judge a book by its cover,” he told me.
When he was getting ready to ship the Macintosh in 1984, he obsessed over the colors and design of the box. Similarly, he personally spent time designing and redesigning the jewellike boxes that cradle the iPod and the iPhone and listed himself on the patents for them. He and Ive believed that unpacking was a ritual like theater and heralded the glory of the product. “When you open the box of an iPhone or iPad, we want that tactile experience to set the tone for how you perceive the product,” Jobs said.
Sometimes Jobs used the design of a machine to “impute” a signal rather than to be merely functional. For example, when he was creating the new and playful iMac, after his return to Apple, he was shown a design by Ive that had a little recessed handle nestled in the top. It was more semiotic than useful. This was a desktop computer. Not many people were really going to carry it around. But Jobs and Ive realized that a lot of people were still intimidated by computers. If it had a handle, the new machine would seem friendly, deferential, and at one’s service. The handle signaled permission to touch the iMac. The manufacturing team was opposed to the extra cost, but Jobs simply announced, “No, we’re doing this.” He didn’t even try to explain.
Push for Perfection
During the development of almost every product he ever created, Jobs at a certain point “hit the pause button” and went back to the drawing board because he felt it wasn’t perfect. That happened even with the movie Toy Story. After Jeff Katzenberg and the team at Disney, which had bought the rights to the movie, pushed the Pixar team to make it edgier and darker, Jobs and the director, John Lasseter, finally stopped production and rewrote the story to make it friendlier. When he was about to launch Apple Stores, he and his store guru, Ron Johnson, suddenly decided to delay everything a few months so that the stores’ layouts could be reorganized around activities and not just product categories.
The same was true for the iPhone. The initial design had the glass screen set into an aluminum case. One Monday morning Jobs went over to see Ive. “I didn’t sleep last night,” he said, “because I realized that I just don’t love it.” Ive, to his dismay, instantly saw that Jobs was right. “I remember feeling absolutely embarrassed that he had to make the observation,” he says. The problem was that the iPhone should have been all about the display, but in its current design the case competed with the display instead of getting out of the way. The whole device felt too masculine, task-driven, efficient. “Guys, you’ve killed yourselves over this design for the last nine months, but we’re going to change it,” Jobs told Ive’s team. “We’re all going to have to work nights and weekends, and if you want, we can hand out some guns so you can kill us now.” Instead of balking, the team agreed. “It was one of my proudest moments at Apple,” Jobs recalled.
A similar thing happened as Jobs and Ive were finishing the iPad. At one point Jobs looked at the model and felt slightly dissatisfied. It didn’t seem casual and friendly enough to scoop up and whisk away. They needed to signal that you could grab it with one hand, on impulse. They decided that the bottom edge should be slightly rounded, so that a user would feel comfortable just snatching it up rather than lifting it carefully. That meant engineering had to design the necessary connection ports and buttons in a thin, simple lip that sloped away gently underneath. Jobs delayed the product until the change could be made.
Jobs’s perfectionism extended even to the parts unseen. As a young boy, he had helped his father build a fence around their backyard, and he was told they had to use just as much care on the back of the fence as on the front. “Nobody will ever know,” Steve said. His father replied, “But you will know.” A true craftsman uses a good piece of wood even for the back of a cabinet against the wall, his father explained, and they should do the same for the back of the fence. It was the mark of an artist to have such a passion for perfection. In overseeing the Apple II and the Macintosh, Jobs applied this lesson to the circuit board inside the machine. In both instances he sent the engineers back to make the chips line up neatly so the board would look nice. This seemed particularly odd to the engineers of the Macintosh, because Jobs had decreed that the machine be tightly sealed. “Nobody is going to see the PC board,” one of them protested. Jobs reacted as his father had: “I want it to be as beautiful as possible, even if it’s inside the box. A great carpenter isn’t going to use lousy wood for the back of a cabinet, even though nobody’s going to see it.” They were true artists, he said, and should act that way. And once the board was redesigned, he had the engineers and other members of the Macintosh team sign their names so that they could be engraved inside the case. “Real artists sign their work,” he said.
Tolerate Only “A” Players
Jobs was famously impatient, petulant, and tough with the people around him. But his treatment of people, though not laudable, emanated from his passion for perfection and his desire to work with only the best. It was his way of preventing what he called “the bozo explosion,” in which managers are so polite that mediocre people feel comfortable sticking around. “I don’t think I run roughshod over people,” he said, “but if something sucks, I tell people to their face. It’s my job to be honest.” When I pressed him on whether he could have gotten the same results while being nicer, he said perhaps so. “But it’s not who I am,” he said. “Maybe there’s a better way—a gentlemen’s club where we all wear ties and speak in this Brahmin language and velvet code words—but I don’t know that way, because I am middle-class from California.”
Was all his stormy and abusive behavior necessary? Probably not. There were other ways he could have motivated his team. “Steve’s contributions could have been made without so many stories about him terrorizing folks,” Apple’s cofounder, Wozniak, said. “I like being more patient and not having so many conflicts. I think a company can be a good family.” But then he added something that is undeniably true: “If the Macintosh project had been run my way, things probably would have been a mess.”
It’s important to appreciate that Jobs’s rudeness and roughness were accompanied by an ability to be inspirational. He infused Apple employees with an abiding passion to create groundbreaking products and a belief that they could accomplish what seemed impossible. And we have to judge him by the outcome. Jobs had a close-knit family, and so it was at Apple: His top players tended to stick around longer and be more loyal than those at other companies, including ones led by bosses who were kinder and gentler. CEOs who study Jobs and decide to emulate his roughness without understanding his ability to generate loyalty make a dangerous mistake.
“I’ve learned over the years that when you have really good people, you don’t have to baby them,” Jobs told me. “By expecting them to do great things, you can get them to do great things. Ask any member of that Mac team. They will tell you it was worth the pain.” Most of them do. “He would shout at a meeting, ‘You asshole, you never do anything right,’” Debi Coleman recalls. “Yet I consider myself the absolute luckiest person in the world to have worked with him.”
Despite being a denizen of the digital world, or maybe because he knew all too well its potential to be isolating, Jobs was a strong believer in face-to-face meetings. “There’s a temptation in our networked age to think that ideas can be developed by e-mail and iChat,” he told me. “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.”
He had the Pixar building designed to promote unplanned encounters and collaborations. “If a building doesn’t encourage that, you’ll lose a lot of innovation and the magic that’s sparked by serendipity,” he said. “So we designed the building to make people get out of their offices and mingle in the central atrium with people they might not otherwise see.” The front doors and main stairs and corridors all led to the atrium; the café and the mailboxes were there; the conference rooms had windows that looked out onto it; and the 600-seat theater and two smaller screening rooms all spilled into it. “Steve’s theory worked from day one,” Lasseter recalls. “I kept running into people I hadn’t seen for months. I’ve never seen a building that promoted collaboration and creativity as well as this one.”
Jobs hated formal presentations, but he loved freewheeling face-to-face meetings. He gathered his executive team every week to kick around ideas without a formal agenda, and he spent every Wednesday afternoon doing the same with his marketing and advertising team. Slide shows were banned. “I hate the way people use slide presentations instead of thinking,” Jobs recalled. “People would confront a problem by creating a presentation. I wanted them to engage, to hash things out at the table, rather than show a bunch of slides. People who know what they’re talking about don’t need PowerPoint.”
Know Both the Big Picture and the Details
Jobs’s passion was applied to issues both large and minuscule. Some CEOs are great at vision; others are managers who know that God is in the details. Jobs was both. Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes says that one of Jobs’s salient traits was his ability and desire to envision overarching strategy while also focusing on the tiniest aspects of design. For example, in 2000 he came up with the grand vision that the personal computer should become a “digital hub” for managing all of a user’s music, videos, photos, and content, and thus got Apple into the personal-device business with the iPod and then the iPad. In 2010 he came up with the successor strategy—the “hub” would move to the cloud—and Apple began building a huge server farm so that all a user’s content could be uploaded and then seamlessly synced to other personal devices. But even as he was laying out these grand visions, he was fretting over the shape and color of the screws inside the iMac.
Combine the Humanities with the Sciences
“I always thought of myself as a humanities person as a kid, but I liked electronics,” Jobs told me on the day he decided to cooperate on a biography. “Then I read something that one of my heroes, Edwin Land of Polaroid, said about the importance of people who could stand at the intersection of humanities and sciences, and I decided that’s what I wanted to do.” It was as if he was describing the theme of his life, and the more I studied him, the more I realized that this was, indeed, the essence of his tale.
He connected the humanities to the sciences, creativity to technology, arts to engineering. There were greater technologists (Wozniak, Gates), and certainly better designers and artists. But no one else in our era could better firewire together poetry and processors in a way that jolted innovation. And he did it with an intuitive feel for business strategy. At almost every product launch over the past decade, Jobs ended with a slide that showed a sign at the intersection of Liberal Arts and Technology Streets.
The creativity that can occur when a feel for both the humanities and the sciences exists in one strong personality was what most interested me in my biographies of Franklin and Einstein, and I believe that it will be a key to building innovative economies in the 21st century. It is the essence of applied imagination, and it’s why both the humanities and the sciences are critical for any society that is to have a creative edge in the future.
Even when he was dying, Jobs set his sights on disrupting more industries. He had a vision for turning textbooks into artistic creations that anyone with a Mac could fashion and craft—something that Apple announced in January 2012. He also dreamed of producing magical tools for digital photography and ways to make television simple and personal. Those, no doubt, will come as well. And even though he will not be around to see them to fruition, his rules for success helped him build a company that not only will create these and other disruptive products, but will stand at the intersection of creativity and technology as long as Jobs’s DNA persists at its core.
Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish
Steve Jobs was a product of the two great social movements that emanated from the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1960s. The first was the counterculture of hippies and antiwar activists, which was marked by psychedelic drugs, rock music, and antiauthoritarianism. The second was the high-tech and hacker culture of Silicon Valley, filled with engineers, geeks, wireheads, phreakers, cyberpunks, hobbyists, and garage entrepreneurs. Overlying both were various paths to personal enlightenment—Zen and Hinduism, meditation and yoga, primal scream therapy and sensory deprivation, Esalen and est.
An admixture of these cultures was found in publications such as Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog. On its first cover was the famous picture of Earth taken from space, and its subtitle was “access to tools.” The underlying philosophy was that technology could be our friend. Jobs—who became a hippie, a rebel, a spiritual seeker, a phone phreaker, and an electronic hobbyist all wrapped into one—was a fan. He was particularly taken by the final issue, which came out in 1971, when he was still in high school. He took it with him to college and then to the apple farm commune where he lived after dropping out. He later recalled: “On the back cover of their final issue was a photograph of an early morning country road, the kind you might find yourself hitchhiking on if you were so adventurous. Beneath it were the words: ‘Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.’” Jobs stayed hungry and foolish throughout his career by making sure that the business and engineering aspect of his personality was always complemented by a hippie nonconformist side from his days as an artistic, acid-dropping, enlightenment-seeking rebel. In every aspect of his life—the women he dated, the way he dealt with his cancer diagnosis, the way he ran his business—his behavior reflected the contradictions, confluence, and eventual synthesis of all these varying strands.
Even as Apple became corporate, Jobs asserted his rebel and counterculture streak in its ads, as if to proclaim that he was still a hacker and a hippie at heart. The famous “1984” ad showed a renegade woman outrunning the thought police to sling a sledgehammer at the screen of an Orwellian Big Brother. And when he returned to Apple, Jobs helped write the text for the “Think Different” ads: “Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes…” If there was any doubt that, consciously or not, he was describing himself, he dispelled it with the last lines: “While some see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”
Walter Isaacson, the CEO of the Aspen Institute, is the author of Steve Jobs and of biographies of Henry Kissinger, Benjamin Franklin, and Albert Einstein.