The passing of Steve Jobs has left many of us contemplating his impact on our lives beyond the devices we now take for granted. Perhaps even more important than the technology itself, Jobs left behind some powerful business lessons for us. We’re all going to draw different lessons and inspirations from the man; here are the some of them that I’ve gleaned from him over the years and how I see them applying to the shaping and growing of a creative firm.
1. Most Positioning is Superficial
“So many companies are competing against each other with similar agendas. Being superficially different is the goal of so many… rather than trying to innovate and genuinely taking the time, investing the resources and caring enough to try and make something better.”
The quote comes not from Jobs himself but from Jon Ive, Apple’s SVP of product design, but it speaks to the Apple way of going all in to whatever endeavor they pursued. While Ive may have been talking about consumer electronics companies, I imagine him addressing a room full of owners of creative firms, admonishing them on half-hearted specializations like claims of “focusing on challenger brands”, “integrated marketing communications,” of being “brand story-tellers” or even legitimate focuses on verticals without the corresponding change in product offering.
While fewer in the creative professions today argue against the need for specialization, many attempts at it remain superficial exercises in language only.
In an interview in Fast Company a few years ago, designer Yves Behar summed up the dedication required to make something meaningfully different. He said that his clients often come to him saying they want to be the Apple of their industry. His reply: “Do you have the guts?”
When you make the decision to narrow your branding firm (as an example) to a vertical such as healthcare (another example) then branding as a lead service offering suddenly becomes a ridiculous notion. There are myriad real problems within healthcare that can benefit from a designer’s vision. To continue to talk about logos, taglines and color palettes but just for hospitals now is to miss the point entirely – something that Ive and Jobs saw happening everywhere. So much positioning in the world is superficial like this. So few companies are as committed to their choices as Apple.
2. Don’t Pervert Your Passion
Since his cancer diagnosis, Jobs’ message to those around him seemed to be don’t suffer through a job, a business or an existence where you’re not excited about what you are doing. Amen. None of us would argue about the futility of going to work in an environment or toward goals that do not excite us, but too often this idea of being guided by our passions gets twisted into a rationale for not pushing ourselves.
For those of you who think your passion is design, ask yourselves, what was Jobs’ passion? Was it Apple? Was it computing? To say it was either is to imply that he wasn’t enjoying himself or completely committed at NeXT or Pixar.
“What can I be passionate about” is a far better question than “what is my passion?”
I believe designers are driven by the pursuit of the elegant solution. Designers are problem solvers and can get passionate about most endeavors that see them search for the simplest, most beautiful solution to whatever problem is in front of them. It’s a passion that can be dropped into innumerable contexts that would see most of them thrive, well beyond just logo design, yet so many cling to branding because they see design as their passion. It’s hard to imagine Jobs using passion as an excuse to build another me-too business, but designers do it all the time.
In 1983 Jobs tapped the passion vein to finally lure Pepsi CEO John Scully to come to Apple by famously asking, “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water or do you want to change the world?” Scully’s passion surely wasn’t soda or even computing. I understand that there’s little point in continuing to do something that we’re no longer excited about doing, but the notion that any of us couldn’t get passionate about all kinds of challenges seems absurd to me.
After Jobs was deposed by Scully he entered what he later called “the most creative period of my life,” transforming the motion picture industry through Pixar and pioneering more computing innovations through NeXT (that would later be reabsorbed by Apple). The problems changed, and even though his love for Apple surely didn’t abate, do you doubt that Jobs took to his new endeavors with any less passion?
You get the sense that Jobs could have picked his occupation from a fortune cookie and he would have found the passion to do something great and meaningful with it.
3. Trust Your Vision
Jobs was renowned for not using focus groups or other forms of external research to tell him what the market wanted. The iPad is a great example of a product for which there appeared to be no need.
The Mac, he said, “we built… 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.”
It’s not the only approach to marketing but it’s an entirely valid one, provided you have the determination to pursue your vision.
In the week since his death, Jobs has been likened most to other American inventor/industrialists Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. Ford in particular would have shared Jobs’ disdain for trying to guess at what the market wanted. He famously said, “You can have any color you want as long as it’s black,” and even more apropos of Jobs was Ford’s quote, “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.”
I often see agency principals trying to solve the positioning puzzle like there is only one answer to the question of how to focus a firm. Some become paralyzed with uncertainty over whether they’ve selected the right niche. The truth is, with enough determination and willingness to learn as you go, you too could pick a successful specialization from a fortune cookie. There’s no one right answer that lets you change the course of the firm a little bit and then sit back and collect the rewards. Pick a focus and then decide you’re going to do whatever it takes to be better at it than any other firm out there.
4. A Culture of Intolerance
There are really only two types of culture you can have in your firm: one of tolerance or one of intolerance. If you spend a great deal of time thinking about the culture of your firm it’s likely that yours is a culture of tolerance. Quite unlike Apple’s under Steve Jobs.
”My job is not to be easy on people,” he said. “My job is to take these great people we have and to push them and make them even better.”
When Jobs was fired from Apple in 1985, the stories of his unforgiving management style came pouring forth. The man was a tyrant. He fired people spontaneously (then apologized, then fired them again) for things like having a single visible screw on a prototype. The hours were long, the deadlines short and the pressures relentless. But after he had been gone a couple of years and Apple lost its way, some of those who had previously resented him started to miss him. What they missed was a man who wanted to know how good they could become and who was willing to push them to their limits to find out.
David Maister talks about cultures of tolerance, where it’s difficult for anyone to get fired, versus cultures of intolerance, where high standards are not just espoused but enforced. His findings show that in a typical professional firm, about half the partners opt for a culture of tolerance and inclusiveness and about half want to see how far the firm can go and how good they can become. While each approach to business is valid, Maister claims, he says he can usually get those that vote for a culture of tolerance to change their minds because “I can prove to the partners that they are very, very bored; that they are living in a world they can’t stand; that they are sick of having no standards… I can prove to them that their lives are miserable.”
Maister claims that when the choices are laid out, most would prefer that “we live in a place that’s got high standards and we help each other achieve the standards.” Jobs notoriously admonished his Apple TV team after the first iteration of the product failed, “You should hate yourselves for letting each other down.”
Apple was home to the Jobsian culture of high standards (twice) and the more common, complacent culture in between his two reigns and the consensus of those who lived through both seemed to be that they would rather be pushed to see how great they might become, even when growth proved painful.
I’m fond of saying that I don’t like culture. It’s a lie, but I say it as a form of shock therapy to get people to examine their own focus on it. Culture is the unavoidable outcome of beliefs and behaviors. If you’re trying to manufacture culture then you’re almost certainly not focused on building a firm that is the best in the world at what it does.
I’m sure there are lots of people who worked for Steve Jobs who wished he would have been nicer to them (yes, that’s part of culture, too) but now that he’s gone and many are wondering how far they’ll be able to go without him pushing them, my guess is that few are wishing he hadn’t pushed them so hard.
How Much Time Do You Have?
When we look at how much Steve Jobs changed our lives in the last ten years of his, we can only guess at how much different the world would have been if he had lived just one more decade. We will never know. Nor can we know how much time we will have to make our own mark. It’s tempting to put to ourselves a version of the question Jobs put to John Scully 28 years ago: do we want to spend the rest of our lives selling logos & brochures or do we want to change the world?
Jobs himself, however, was dismissive of this notion that we all need to set out to change the world. “What you do doesn’t have to change the world to be important,” he said. He simply saw a requirement to strive for excellence in everything we do, and this was perhaps Jobs’ biggest lesson for all of us: we are capable of so much, therefore we owe it to ourselves and those around us to aim high.
“We don’t get a chance to do that many things, and every one should be really excellent, because this is our life. Life is brief, and then you die. And we’ve all chosen to do this with our lives. So it better be damn good. It better be worth it.”