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Steve Jobs biography take-away

Power should be focused on the Product.

Fred Engel

Westerly Consulting


Walter Isaacson’s biography on Steve Jobs is a must read business book for anyone involved in product creation. Steve Jobs is arguably the best product creator of all time and the book does a great job of capturing some of the key factors that Jobs practiced.  Many of his habits are just good solid management.

I should be clear, Jobs was a genius with a sense of product that goes beyond any lessons garnered from any book. His esthetic eye, his trust in his own intuition, his eye for detail, and he willingness to drive through all obstacles are very hard to replicate.  But us mortals building products (I say that seriously) can learn a lot to learn from his way of driving the product creation.  His style, in my opinion, left a lot to be desired and should not be duplicated. Although, I do wonder if a milder style could have gotten the same results.

Here are the key lessons I took from the biography:

Leadership – Leadership matters.  Steve Jobs was the ultimate empowered leader.  While his style was brutal on people, he was able to drive the organization through sheer force of personality.  He was not a caretaker but an active participant in the process of making product decisions. Too many leaders do not want to show what they think or are eager to stay out of serious discussions.  The leader that decides can be very empowering because people know that things will move forward. 

Passion – Products are much better when people are truly passionate about what they are producing.  Clearly, Steve Jobs cared about what it was that he built.  He identified with the company and the products and felt that a blemish on the product was a blemish on him.  He created a culture that felt the same way. I wish more companies felt this way.  How many products are built by people who do not care?  Passion creates the energy and desire to get things right. When there is no passion, there is insufficient effort.

The Product Matters – A great product creates a great company with great revenue and great margin.  Clearly Apple products are great.  The process of building these products is focused on delivering excellence product and they are not shipped until they are excellent.  How many companies can say the really care about the product? How many CEO’s are possessed about getting the products right?  Do you think Detroit has cared about their cars in the last 40 years? Do you think the airlines really care about how they behave?  In far too many companies, the products are not center stage.

Intuition – There are so many decisions that one needs good intuition to make these decisions. Jobs picked products for which he was a consumer and so his notion about right and wrong in the product were personal.  What this says to me is that whatever product you are building, you need to make it personal. You need to know more about your customer than they know about themselves.  You need to know what they need because you live it. Become your customer.

Details – Everyone should care about the product details, especially the boss. Apple products get the details right and it shows.  Jobs drives down to the details so that everyone knows they matter, a lot. When you use Apple products you rarely find yourself saying, “what idiot built this feature?”  They are obsessed about every detail in the product.  They want a product that works and works well. 

The Whole Product – Get the whole eco-system of the product right.  Products are sold into a context of channel, customer, market, and other external and internal influences.  That context critically affects the ability for a product to succeed. Get the pricing model wrong and the product won’t sell. Get the channel wrong and the customer may never get the product. The best example of this is the way Jobs changed the pricing model for online books by going to agency pricing, which leveled the playing field for Apple (and removed power from a competitor: Amazon).

Collaboration – Good teams create synergy and produce to a higher level than individuals.  As myopic and self-centered as Jobs seems to have been he understood the need for a team around him to argue and design with.   He engaged in debate (not always in the best of styles) that brought out the creative energies of the people around him.  The give and take of debate is often needed to get people to think creatively about what they are doing. He took people out of their comfort zones (to say the least) and it worked well.

Decisions – To get a coherent product you need a single brain that can make decisions and is obeyed.  Jobs was the decision maker. He worked with a team, took a lot of input, argued and argued about what was right and wrong, and decided.  Decisions stuck and people moved forward.  Too often products are handed to a committee and decisions are almost impossible to make happen well.  It is not that “design by committee is bad” it is that decisions by committee are bad. Jobs used committees to drive creativity and alternatives, but he made decisions.  Too many CEO’s (or other leaders) run for the hills when a decision is needed.


Send comments to: fred@westerlyconsulting.com