6 Lessons We Could Learn from Steve Jobs

Last Updated Oct 6, 2011 10:50 AM EDT

Tracking the achievements of Steve Jobs isn't a difficult thing to do. They're big, public and - especially in technology - remarkably long lasting. More tricky but, I think, more interesting, is eliciting from those achievements the lessons we could learn from his successes if we tried.

1. Style is Content
From the outset, Jobs and Apple believed in style: in fonts, in graphics, in industrial design and in marketing. It's easy to under-estimate how eccentric this was at the time - and how eccentric it remains today. While most organizations believe that style is the exclusive purview of marketing, few achieve it even there. Most hardware and software remains remarkably clunky, ugly or simply derivative. (The Kindle is hideous; the Fire a pale imitation.) When I first started working in technology 15 years ago, style was dismissed as frivolous and that's the status it still holds in most companies today. Anyone who imagines that Apple's success derives entirely from what's inside the box (and there are more than a few) has missed a very obvious point.

Conventional wisdom divides thinking into the left brain and the right brain. The left is all systematic, rational, linear while the right is more emotional and creative. What Jobs demonstrated was that success lies not in emphasizing one over the other but in bringing them together. The physical representation of this was clear when he took over Pixar. The new campus planned 3 separate buildings: for creatives, for producers and for business people. He insisted that they be brought under one roof, with toilets at the center - because that's where everyone meets and talks.

2. Patience Beats Speed
For all that Apple is known for fast product development, the truth is that Jobs was very good at waiting. After his return to Apple in 1997, when the company teetered on the brink of bankruptcy, he did what any smart CEO would do: slashed product lines (15 desktop models to 1) cut software and hardware engineers, eliminated peripherals, reduced inventory and retailers and moved most manufacturing offshore. There is nothing brilliant about this; it's textbook stuff. But asked in 1998, by Richard Rummelt, what he was going to do next, in order to move Apple beyond its fragile niche position, Jobs had a gutsy answer: "I am going to wait for the next big thing."

Wait? In a technology business? That took courage. Of course, once he'd figured out what the next big thing was, Jobs was methodical and patient - again - in putting in place everything he'd need to take advantage of the seismic shift in the environment when the U.S. market moved to broadband.

It's also worth remembering that, during the three years he did this, he was remorselessly hammered by industry analysts not one of whom understood what he was up to.

3. Drama Trumps Romance
Jobs's product launches were famed for their drama. But one thing they didn't offer was romance. The products did what they said they'd do. Marketing commentary around them didn't promise fantasies, illusions or daydreams. Apple promoted its products but didn't hype them. This may seem a lackluster quality but it built trust. Apple said its products were easy to use not because (like many of its competitors) it hoped that was true, or because it was true for the PhD engineers who'd invented them, but because it was true. It seems peculiar to celebrate a company for truth in advertising but that's one reason why Apple customers, once smitten, stayed loyal.

4. Nothing Beats a Good Mistake
Jobs's career isn't without its mis-steps. Losing control of Apple was the biggest and most obvious but there were plenty of minor slip ups along the way. The suicides at the Foxconn plant that manufactures iPhones was just one of these. But Jobs didn't try to deny that they had taken place or that they mattered. He was swift to point out that Apple's scrutiny of its suppliers was more rigorous than most - but he still moved quickly to understand what was going on and try to find remedies.

Every company makes mistakes. But, treated right, they can be treasure troves of learning. Moreover, people loved Jobs not because he didn't make mistakes - but because he learned from them.

5. Technology Isn't All About Youth
In the age of fast companies, built not to last, Apple offered ample proof that you can be innovative and cool after the age of 25. Experience, know how and skills counted for something. While the products were cool, they weren't all built by pre-adolescents oblivious to the constraints and needs of normal human beings. That Jobs continued to be as innovative in his 50s as he had been in his 20s is something most companies should take time to consider at length.

6. Business Doesn't Have to Be Bad
Earlier this week I was teaching a class of new MBA students. A strikingly international group, they came from Thailand, India, Korea, Colombia, Russia, Canada, Taiwan, China and the U.S. I asked them who their heroes were. As usual, the list included their parents, various heads of state and Nelson Mandela. But topping the list - regardless of age or nationality - was Steve Jobs. More than anyone else alive, he was the person who inspired their love of business and their desire to try their hands at it.

In an age when the streets are full of anger and violence at the havoc wreaked by one part of the business world, that there is such an inspirational figure as Jobs is important. We need smart men and women, young and old, to have high ambitions for the world of work, someone who believed passionately and articulated brilliantly how much good business can achieve. Now that Jobs is gone, who can fail to be concerned that no one else adequately represents his rich synthesis of intellect, imagination and passion?

The lessons we could learn from Steve Jobs aren't all that remarkable. Many of them contain wisdom that we already know -- we just don't apply it. Why not? Is it that we lack courage? Or is it that we find it hard to believe that tenets so simple can prove so effective? Surely that's the moral of the Apple story: there is genius in simplicity. But simple is hard.

Further Reading
RIP Ipod
Steve Jobs's Legacy
  • Margaret Heffernan On Twitter»

    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.

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