Thursday, October 13, 2011

Three Fundamental Lessons from Steve Jobs’s Apple

So much has been written in the past week chronicling the life and leadership of Steve Jobs. One of my favorite articles actually distills 12 lessons from his life. No doubt, he created enormous value for his investors, customers, employees, and partners and literally enriched countless lives along the way. I hope to add another perspective to all the commentary as a nine-year Apple employee and an admirer of the drive, work ethic, and sheer productivity of what Steve was able to instill in those around him.

For me, there were three fundamental business lessons that Steve (primarily through Apple) instilled. These three lessons can be used to create value in any industry, and with Steve’s passing, I am reminded to exercise these lessons fervently in areas of my own interest (BI, open source, web-enabled applications). These lessons are important and widely applicable, but I leave it to you, the reader, to examine how they can be applied to drive superior results in areas of your own work or interest.

Long-Term Vision

In about 1989, Apple produced a short film called “Knowledge Navigator” primarily for internal use. This narrative film was set far in the future (estimated to be about 2011, by the way) and was designed to richly describe what the future of computing should be like, inspiring Apple employees to make the vision real. During the past week, this film surfaced and was heralded for its clairvoyance, because the iPad platform clearly resembles the Knowledge Navigator.

Further, this past week’s news about all-things Apple surfaced the fact that the company applied for patents consistent with the iPad design about 5 years prior to its debut. This type of long-term vision and beyond-the-quarter determination allows breakthrough value to be envisioned and created. This lesson reminds me that we too often look for quick, simple wins that provide only small, incremental gains. Aiming too far out is frightening and wrought with risk, but nothing else creates the leaps in capabilities that define new categories. May we all summon the courage required for long-term vision when it has the potential to make lasting change.

Disruptive Innovation

For a company to succeed once, it needs to disrupt the incumbents. For a company to succeed a second time, it must disrupt itself. This axiom, first said to me by Professor Gary Hamel and then conceptually popularized by Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School in his book “The Innovator’s Dilemma”, emphasizes the concept of disruptive innovation and the difficulty most successful companies face in disrupting their own success. Indeed, the economist Joseph Schumpeter originally authored the principle of creative destruction, owing its virtues to market capitalism itself.

Apple has a long history of disruptive innovation, most pointedly when Mr. Jobs was at the helm. The original Macintosh computer was a bold disruption not only to the emerging IBM-backed DOS computers of the time, but to Apple’s own products as well (the Apple II and Apple III, to be specific). Since Steve’s return, Apple has been a fountain of disruption – with the iPod alone transforming the personal electronics, music and gaming industries. Then, Apple used the basis of the iPod platform to disrupt the mobile phone market by creating the iPhone, essentially stealing it from the traditional handset manufacturers by recognizing a “smart phone” is actually a hand held, multi-network computer that happens to function as a phone when necessary. This was a radically different perspective that distinguished Apple from the incumbents.

Most recently, Apple once again disrupted itself by delivering the world’s most popular tablet computer, the iPad. Even when pundits worried the iPad could significantly cannibalize MacBook sales, Steve’s Apple powered forward -- placing greater value on defining and owning a new category of post-PC computing than maintaining its own status quo. That’s using vision to innovate disruptively.

Expect Greatness

Steve’s management and leadership style has been on review since the early ‘80s. The Steve that returned to lead Apple in 1997 was a very different man than the one who left in 1985. He had learned so much in the course of his career, building NeXT and Pixar. But one thing surely didn’t change: Steve always expected greatness from himself and all those around him. In his more mercurial moments, he unwaveringly demanded greatness, believing that anything worth doing is worth doing well (or in Steve’s case, doing insanely great). Past articles describe Steve’s total undressing of an initially unsuccessful MobileMe team, replacing the team’s leader unceremoniously and immediately. Greatness had been expected but not delivered.

In that expectation lied an important leadership lesson. If you don’t expect greatness, how will it occur? Steve showed me it won’t and that sometimes the bar just has to be raised. Having the courage to raise that bar for yourself and others and not yield to mediocrity is exhausting but necessary. Without the courage of these convictions, bold long-term visions and disruptive innovations are few and far between. Expecting greatness provides the canvas upon which the bold vision and disruptive innovation can be realized.

Steve’s death endows every technology leader with a deeper sense of responsibility to create a richer, simpler and (therefore) more powerful experience for customers. We can no longer simply look to Steve’s Apple for its exclusive magic to fill the void so often left by technology companies as they deliver mediocre products into the marketplace. I hope these three fundamental lessons help pave the way.

Brian Gentile

Chief Executive Officer


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