Top 10 Lessons from Steve Jobs' Legacy

I just finished reading Steve Job's biography by Walter Isaacson which I highly recommend.  I like top 10 lists so I compiled the biggest lessons I took away from his impressive accomplishments:

1.     Put Design First
Most companies design around engineering constraints.  At Apple, design was first, like designing the computer case first and having engineering make the components fit.  I thought of the many times I’ve heard designers get pushback on their designs because of “feasibility issues”.  If we’re going to create great products, let’s rise up to the challenge of figuring out how to implement the best designs we can think of with a can-do attitude.

2.     Put Products Before Profits
Steve Jobs’ describes his passion as “to build an enduring company where people were motivated to make great products.  Everything else was secondary.” There are numerous examples where Apple put products before profits.  Like delaying the launch of the iPhone because the case wasn’t quite right.  Or having a whole new factory built so that enough anodized aluminum could be manufactured for the iMac and iPod Nano (instead of just using other metals).  These decisions may seem fiscally frivolous yet Apple would ultimately attain the highest valuation of any company in the world.  Putting products before profits to me is synonymous with putting customers first and that’s just good business.

3.     Put Simplicity Over Features
Apple’s design mantra is “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”.  Apple works hard to keep products simple and intuitive and avoid the feature creep trap.  Our own legacy has been creating delightfully easy offerings and that’s especially important to remember as we create new versions of our more mature offerings.

4.     Focus!
When Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, the company was selling dozens of models of the Macintosh.  Eventually he would slash the product line down to four computers and kill ancillary products like the StyleWriter and the Newton.  Reducing the number of products helped the company become more efficient and better focused on making the remaining products great.  Brad has quoted Steve Jobs as having said “My favorite products are the ones we didn’t build, because that’s what made the ones we built even more special and impactful.”

5.     Build Teams of A Players
One of the most impressive aspects of the biography is looking at the list of amazing people who worked at Apple over the years.  Names like Wozniak, Atkinson, Rubinstein, and Ive read like a Silicon Valley Hall of Fame.  “He created a corporation crammed with A players.”  He (perhaps too cruelly) weeded out employees weren’t up to snuff.  Are our own teams filled with A players and if not, how much better could we be if they were?

6.     Use Open Innovation
Many of the innovations that make Apple products great were developed outside the company.  Some examples: the iPhone multi-touch interface was created by FingerWorks, a small company Apple later acquired; the iPhone’s “gorilla glass” developed by Corning; and the first iPod’s 1.8 inch hard drive developed by Toshiba.  Even Siri, the voice recognition technology at the heart of the new iPhone 4S was acquired.  “He didn’t create many things outright, but he was a master of putting together ideas, art, and technology in ways that invented the future.”  Tapping the fountain of open innovation is a great enabler for building great offerings and accelerating growth.

7.     Pay Attention to the Details
Perhaps the most amazing aspect of Jobs’ personality was his attention to details.  There was no detail too minor or insignificant for him to sweat.  He fretted over the title bars in the original Mac.  He demanded factory walls be painted bright white.  He obsessed over the iPhone case.  This attention resulted in a delightful shop/buy/use experience for customers.

8.     Challenge Beliefs
Jobs had what is colorfully described as a “reality distortion field” – the ability to bend reality to his will.  He would wield this ability to convince people they could do something they thought was impossible.  I prefer to describe it as challenging beliefs to accomplish the unprecedented.  My favorite example is when he convinced Corning’s CEO Wendell Weeks that Corning could manufacture enough gorilla glass for the upcoming iPhone even though no factory was making gorilla glass at the time.  To Weeks’ amazement, his scientists and engineers were able to rise to the challenge.  Too often we shy away from hard problems rather than embracing these challenges as opportunities to innovate and create great products.

9.     Create Synergy
The biography makes a compelling argument why it was Apple and not Sony that created the iPod and iTunes even though Sony was arguably much better positioned to do so.  The reason is Sony, like just about every large company, is comprised of several semi-autonomous divisions and “achieving synergy in such companies by prodding the divisions to work together was usually elusive.”  At Apple, they have only one P&L.  Now while this arrangement serves Jobs’ desire for tight control, it also avoids internal battles and siloed mindsets.  The one P&L approach is perhaps just the most extreme of many solutions for enabling synergy within a company.  Whatever the solution, achieving synergy amongst our BU’s has to be a priority lest we suffer the same fate as Sony.

10.  Be a Level 5 Leader
This last lesson is a negative one.  For me, the biggest surprise from reading the biography was Jobs was often a bigger jerk than I ever imagined.  Now some may incorrectly conclude that with great genius comes a difficult personality.  As Isaacson notes “The nasty edge to his personality was not necessary.  It hindered him more than it helped him.”  By brutally putting people down, unfairly taking credit for other people’s ideas, and having underlings work in fear of him, he probably lost people and contributions that would have made Apple even more successful (as crazy as that sounds). 
In “Good to Great”, Jim Collins writes “Level 5 leaders channel their ego needs away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great company.”  Rather than always having the answers, the level 5 leader helps build a culture where people can work together to find the right solutions. Jobs’ approach was too reliant on his cult of personality putting into question Apple’s continued success after his passing.  Of course only time will tell.