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You can only connect the dots later on: The real lessons Steve Jobs has left us

Some people remember that book In Search of Excellence. Few know it was at first self-published: it wasn’t considered commercially viable. A friend once told me it wasn’t much of a book: most of the companies in it had disappeared ten years later he said! One of the companies featured in the book was Apple. That was a long time ago. Steve Jobs figured in it of course. A few years later a friend with whom I was discussing Apple and Jobs, said, “Oh Jobs isn’t all that great!” [*]

The film based on In Search of Excellence showed Apple developing the Macintosh computer. I vividly recall three things even now, 25 or so years ago. The people working on the development were all holed up in a separate building isolated from all the other employees and a Jolly Roger pirate flag was flown from the top of the building. Remember that the competition ““ IBM ““ didn’t do anything like that: there the people developing the PC had to face the taunts of the mainframe guys who dominated the company and the computing business as it was understood at that time. IBM went on to market their personal computer without any proprietary software which meant that the real experience of using it was in the hands of someone else! Enter Microsoft and Bill Gates and vast numbers of other makers of personal computers. Not so Apple.

The second thing was the story of their decision to hire people to do the administrative chores. They got a search firm and they advertised and they appointed people from outside. It didn’t work: they had to let them go after not too long. Apple chiefs realised that the people already on the staff of the company were much more likely to do a good job. So they appointed them instead.

And third was the recruitment process, getting more people on board to help develop and market the Macintosh. Every applicant interviewed had to spend a whole day seeing various Apple people and at the end of the day the applicant was sat down in front of the Macintosh. If their eyes didn’t light up they didn’t get hired!

The whole Macintosh thing is summed up by Steve Jobs’ comment on how they felt immediately after the launch in 1984. “I don’t think I’ve ever worked so hard on something, but working on Macintosh was the neatest experience of my life” he told Playboy in 1985.” Almost everyone who worked on it will say that. None of us wanted to release it at the end. It was as though we knew that once it was out of our hands, it wouldn’t be ours any more.

“When we finally presented it at the shareholders’ meeting, everyone in the auditorium stood up and gave it a 5-minute ovation. What was incredible to me was that I could see the Mac team in the first few rows. It was as though none of us could believe that we’d actually finished it. Everyone started crying.”[1]

Jobs was a person of extraordinary persistence, he would not compromise on quality: “We think the Mac will sell zillions, but we didn’t build the Mac for anybody else” he said in his Playboy interview. “We built it for ourselves. We were the group of people who were going to judge whether it was great or not. We weren’t going to go out and do market research. We just wanted to build the best thing we could build.

“When you’re a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, you’re not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will ever see it. You’ll know it’s there, so you’re going to use a beautiful piece of wood on the back. For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through.”

At the launch of the iMac to the world in 1998 he talked constantly of how it would be the best. He pointed out feature after feature which would enhance the user’s experience. It allowed access to the internet but it was also “a beautiful stand-alone product”; it combined the excitement of the internet with the simplicity of a Macintosh. “Let’s go ahead and build the best we can in every product.” There was no preaching about efficiency or low price. Everything was about the customer and how they had looked around to find what would be better than anything available at that time or could be foreseen: the other stuff available was slow and ugly. The back of the iMac was better than the front of the other guys’ computers! Four years later Jobs launched the iBook. And so on. Jobs was often to talk of the best and also of how they were always developing the next version and the next product and thinking about the one after that.

Jobs’ history is well known, his launch of the Apple II, the first mass produced computer, in 1977 with Steve Wozniak with whom he had been working for several years, the public float of the Apple company in 1980 making Jobs a millionaire, the launch of Lisa the first computer to feature a mouse, on screen icons and folders, launch of the Macintosh computer in 1984, removal from managerial responsibility and eventual resignation in 1985. He was said to be overreaching himself. He had a falling out with Mike Scott, the guy he had hired to be a senior executive who by 1981 had become CEO of Apple and fired half the staff only to be fired himself. Jobs founded NeXT which built machines with futuristic designs and ran UNIX-derived NeXTstep operating system. He bought a company from George Lucas which he renamed Pixar and went on to produce a full length feature film Toy Story with Disney which revolutionised animated film. Apple bought NeXT in 1996 and Jobs along with it. His salary was $1 a year plus company stock. He became CEO of Apple in 1997 and a year later unveiled the iMac.

Jobs spoke of surviving pancreatic cancer when he spoke to the Stanford graduates in 2005. But he had not. In May 2011 he stepped down as CEO of Apple. Tim Cook, whom Jobs hired in 1998 as Chief Operating Officer, became acting CEO. When Cook addressed the graduates at his college, Auburn University in Alabama, in May 2011 he spoke of the history of Apple and how in the mid 1990s it was a mess, a company which Michael Dell said should be closed and the funds returned to shareholders. [2] Apple had done a poor job of marketing some of its computers and had managed production poorly. Cook also spoke of the importance of intuition, the intuition which had led him to leave Compaq, then the world’s biggest computer company, and join Apple, a decision he knew was the right one five minutes into the interview with Jobs. You can’t plan for everything but you can prepare, he said, quoting Abraham Lincoln, “I will prepare and some time my chance will come”. Joining Apple was a chance to work for a creative genius to resurrect a great American company.

At Jobs’ death on October 6 2011, thousands around the world from customers of Apple’s computers, smart phones, iPods and iPads, to Bill Gates and Barrack Obama, paid tribute in many ways: the word visionary was frequently used. Jobs was held in awe. Current Affairs programs rescheduled their interviews to recount the life and achievements of Steve Jobs. People flooded into Apple retail stores with flowers and messages. Apple had become a product that people trusted. Business commentators, for their part, debated how the company would manage a future without Jobs.

But the big lesson, the lesson that should be taken on board from all these recollections of Jobs and Apple without him, is not really Apple’s future ““ though that is not unimportant. The real lessons are what he represented as a leader and the difference that he made to the company and to those who purchased its products. Those much broader lessons are lessons for companies and all organisations.

Many of these lessons are evident listening to his commencement address to Stanford University students in 2005. Five years earlier he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer which he was subsequently told was of a type that was less serious than he had first believed. Jobs told his life story, his unwed mother who nearly gave him away for adoption by the family of a lawyer but withdrew at the last moment, his dropping out of college because he couldn’t see the point of it all, especially considering it was costing a huge amount of the savings his mother had accumulated.

Jobs went to calligraphy classes. None of that seemed to have any relevance to anything then. But when he came to design of the Macintosh he learned just how useful it had all been. Ten years later it all came back to him. It helped in the design of the typography used on the computer screen, typography which made reading the screen easy for the user. That typography used by the Mac got incorporated into the protocol for Windows. You can only connect the dots looking back, he recalled. You just have to trust that what you have followed with your heart and your guts will connect with something that will make all the difference later on.

That focus on the customer, that belief in one’s view of what was important and the persistence, the refusal to accept anything that was not the best, the driving of those around him to seek the best are the features  which have the wide application that organisations of all kinds should be studying. What happens to Apple will happen to Apple. Steve Jobs can’t fend off Samsung’s protests about the iPhone 4S and its design. Or anything else.

In this world where company goals and rationale have been perverted to generating wealth for the shareholder, where so many companies seem more intent on gaining a position in the market by bribing governments or bamboozling the public with stories designed to persuade them to dismiss any view that would lead to the business of today being affected, where competition and the market are supposed to bring us a better life but instead drive a wedge between rich and poor, Jobs reminds us powerfully what companies and all organisations are really there for.

Succeeding is not about flexible work practices and individual contracts and turnover at executive level so as to always have the best available talent. And it isn’t about financial returns to the shareholder. If one strives for excellence that pursuit of effectiveness leads to efficiencies. Not least because everyone in the organisation works their best to achieve that goal. Inspiring leaders drive others to do things they never thought they could. There’s a lot of nonsense spoken about innovation by people who think it all comes from just one person. Jobs wasn’t a success by telling everyone else what to do. He was a success because he inspired others. As Sydney Morning Herald columnist Jessica Irvine said recently productivity is really creativity and as Ross Gittins had pointed out in the same newspaper a few days earlier maybe economic reforms were actually obstructing the productivity they were supposed to be increasing.

“Innovation” Jobs told Business Week in 2004, “comes from people meeting up in the hallways or calling each other at 10.30 at night with a new idea, or because they realised something that shoots holes in how we’ve been thinking about a problem. It’s ad hoc meetings of six people called by someone who thinks he has figured out the coolest new thing ever and who wants to know what other people think of his idea.

“And it comes from saying no to 1,000 things to make sure we don’t get on the wrong track or try to do too much. We’re always thinking about new markets we could enter, but it’s only by saying no that you can concentrate on the things that are really important.”

Too many companies and organisations and too many business lobbies and their counterparts have forgotten all that in the rush to protect what they have now and to hell with the future and anyone else but themselves. Jobs urged the Stanford students that day only six years ago, “Stay hungry, stay foolish”, a motto which came from The Whole Earth Catalogue.

There is also another message. We should be a lot more careful about our judgements. Apple spent a day on every employee hire. Most organisations spend a couple of hours and the choices are often made by people who have not really thought through what they want from those they are hiring. The results are obvious to anyone who cares to look. The board sacked Jobs and then had to get him back! He went on to drive the company to first in the world, with a market capitalisation exceeding Microsoft’s. Yet Jobs dropped out of college.

Like many other people who went on to do great things ““ cosmologist Fred Hoyle who learned to read by watching movies when he was very young, entrepreneurs such as (Virgin founder) Richard Branson, a dyslexic who doesn’t know the difference between net and gross and can’t read a balance sheet and (electronics store founder, adventurer and philanthropist) Dick Smith, who when very young couldn’t pronounce his family name properly saying it was “Mif”, Jobs’ personal history was hardly what one you would expect of someone who ended up as a cult figure. And Jobs was with Apple for a long time, like the artistic director of the Nederlans Dans Theatre Jiri Kylian, director of The Natural History Museum in London Neil Chalmers, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York Philippe de Montebello and many more. Many business “˜experts’ are forever banging on about needing turnover at the top to bring in new ideas: another urban myth!

Reading about Jobs, his life and the history of Apple, the way Jobs relaunched the company in the late 1990s, I am struck by the mixture of idealism and pragmatism exemplified by his recovery from exiting Apple, the company he helped found and the deal with Microsoft in 1997, the extraordinary energy of Jobs as you see him moving around the company and around the retail stores and the wisdom and humility exemplified by his 2005 commencement address to Stanford graduates. The lessons are for all of us.


[*]This essay has benefited from the many media articles about Jobs and from the speeches of various people including Jobs and Tim Cook posted on You Tube.
[1] ‘Steve Jobs quotes: the man in his own words‘ Guardian 6 October 2011
[2] Auburn University Spring 2010 Commencement Speaker Tim Cook
[3] Steve Jobs Stanford Commencement Speech 2005