Regular readers will know that I am a long term Apple fan, since my first Mac in the late 80’s. Steve Job’s early death in October was a remarkably personal thing, both for me and for others I have spoken to. At the time I tried to write a piece, but nothing flowed. So now with a little more perspective I feel ready.
Unless we can do it all on our own, we will have to work with other people. There are very few people who achieve anything entirely on their own. We all have to have support, we all need additional expertise and we all need someone to try ideas out with. The idea of the lone genius is misleading, we tend to remember the name of the icon, but very few of them really worked alone, and even if they did work alone, they still had others taking care of the non work stuff to enable them to do their work.
The point is that we need other people. And if we need other people we will also need to work out how to work with other people. How we will communicate, how we will get the best out of them and how we will offer the best of ourselves.
In the end Steve Jobs greatest creation was Apple. A company of 60,000 people and currently the second most valuable business in the world by stock market valuation. The bald statistics only hint at the greatness of the creation.
What made Apple great, in the first place and particularly in the last 15 years was the ability to hire outstanding people and then get more out of them than they themselves thought possible. Steve was the architect of this strategy, it was not always pretty or pleasant, but it was effective. And for those who could take it, fantastically rewarding.
Steve’s rules of cultural leadership:
Employ only “A” calibre people: Steve was notoriously tough on people. He had a binary world view where things were “insanely great” or “crap” and the margin between the two could be invisible to a less critical eye. People were “bozos” or “A’s” and Steve would only tolerate the former. His view was that “A’s” appreciate working with other “A’s” and that is part of what helps them work at their best.
Steve deliberately used withering cruelty to test someone’s calibre. If they stood up to him with conviction, passion and quality he respected them. If they crumpled (as many did) they were out.
It is hard to see this particular strategy as acceptable, even for a bona fide genius, but there are still the seeds of a lesson in there for the rest of us. The basic principle of A graders is a good one, as is the intellectual and emotional honesty of speaking out in order to maintain those standards. What is not acceptable is cruelty and nor is it necessary. It is quite possible to be just as decisive and still be caring about other peoples feelings.
The other side of the cruelty to the “bozos” was both the implicit and explicit praise for the A graders. Simply being kept on a top quality team is an honour and just as Steve could be vicious in his criticism he was also fulsome in his praise, of those who made the grade. Positive feedback is a powerful and inexpensive motivator, which many under use.
Never compromise on quality: Completion is rarely objective. At some point we settle on a standard or a position of our project or activity being “good enough”, being ready and we decide that we are done. Typically on a project if we are some way along there is very little that will persuade us to stop, write off what we have done and start again.
Apple do this repeatedly, in fact they have done it with virtually every one of their major products – including the Mac, Apple Store, iPhone and others. They have got to a point of near completion, given themselves some honest feedback and taken the decision to hit the pause button, regroup and redesign.
It is a testimony to the culture of Apple and the calibre of the A graders that people had the courage to say (even to Steve), “this is not good enough”. Just think of your own experience. How many times have you sat in a meeting, with the tone of the conversation heading towards a deadline and not raised questions that you had about quality or completeness? It takes both huge personal courage and a supportive and quality obsessed culture to enable people to speak up in this way.
Steve’s cruelty on it’s own, would have been a total barrier to such honesty, so it is a great testimony to other aspects of his leadership and the Apple culture that this process happened even once, let alone repeatedly.
Deliver the goods: One of Steve’s mantras became “Real artists ship”. The flip side of never compromising on quality is that you never actually deliver the goods. There is a powerful tension and an extremely fine balance between continuing to tinker, to get things perfect, and finalising a design and delivering on time. One of the great strengths of Apple is that they get this balance right, more often than most. Not everything is perfect, but their hit rate is significantly better than average.
It remains to be seen what happens to the Apple culture and standards without it’s chief critic and inspiration. Is it even possible to embed such extreme standards to the extent that they are sustained? There are some clues in the structure that suggest they might, but the proof will only come from the future. As I understand it Design Head Jony Ive does not actually report to anyone, making him effectively a peer to CEO Tim Cook – which is interesting. Also in recent years Apple set up an internal “university” with a top business professor to continue to teach and embed the Apple way and the Apple culture.
There are many in business who say that the people stuff is soft and fluffy. In reality they only say that as a way of avoiding dealing with it, because the people stuff is without doubt the hard stuff. Get it right and it is the people who will enable greatness of any organisation.
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