Steve Jobs and the Importance of “Unacceptable”

After a long summer with a lot of travel (Big Sur, Tuscany, Rome, and England), I find myself at home, kids back at school today, with a lot of tech-world headlines having gone by. The two biggest have been the resignation of Steve Jobs as Apple CEO, and HP’s announcements that it was giving up on WebOS and planning to spin out its PC division.

Steve Jobs resignation has stirred a great deal of emotion online, and especially here in Silicon Valley. It’s a truism that when people strongly mourn the departure of someone they don’t know, they are in large part mourning for themselves. Given the extent to which Silicon Valley entrepreneurs identify with “Steve”, the Valley’s inhabitants feel like they are loosing not only an icon but also a proof-in-living-form of the superiority of the entrepreneurial model – of “product excellence” (Apple) over “marketing” (Microsoft-as-was); of entrepreneurs over company boards; of disrupters over incumbent companies; even of vision over execution. And naturally the challenges of Steve Job’s medical condition stir all kinds of sympathetic emotions, too.

Some of the more outré commentary has claimed that Steve Jobs is indeed a “unique visionary” without whom the tech-industry will be lost.

Of course, this is mostly bunk. The primary world-changing tech development of the last 15 years – the growth of the Internet with all its ramifications – is very much not a Steve Jobs’ endeavor. Especially since his return to Apple in 1996, Steve Jobs extraordinary success has been less about broad-brush vision than about the specifics of focus, about following through uncomprimisingly on the implications of his goals, and about getting Apple to do what they choose to do extraordinarily well.

Others sought to serve the consumer. Apple made it a true focus, closing products that didn’t fit.

Others sought well-designed easy-to-use products (Nokia, for instance). But those other companies were not so uncompromising. For example, when Apple was looking for telephone-company partners for the iPhone, they were unwilling to back down on their control of the user experience. They had their idea of how the iPhone would be, and they kept talking to the carriers until they found a carrier (AT&T) willing to go along with it. A company that was more “reasonable”, more willing to compromise with the established order, more “business minded”, would have given carrier-partners all kinds of control over the iPhone for the sake of broader and earlier distribution, and broken the simplicity and ease of use that powered its success. Apple followed through on their focus on user/consumer – that end user’s ease-of-use mattered more than any issues of distribution, partner relationships, time to market, or anything else.

Similarly, many other companies had targeted the tablet “market” before Apple – Microsoft famously announced that the tablet was the future in 2000 – but the earlier products just weren’t simple enough, light enough, coherent enough, targeted enough at real consumers.

In most of our working lives, there are tremendous pressures not to be focussed, not to be uncompromising, and not to maintain excellence. The desire to be liked is strong for most. Collegiality is rewarded and welcomed by bosses, colleagues, even business partners. Conversely, motivation and morale can easily be damaged by “unreasonable” leaders. Many people are measured on achieving time-based goals, but uncompromising approaches can take more time, or unpredictable amounts of time. Focus is easily lost in a world of “Can’t we just…”, “Wouldn’t it be nice if…”, and all the other enticing phrases by which defocussing is achieved.

How did Apple avoid all that? Really, it was because of Steve Jobs. He knew that power of saying “This is unacceptable” – or “That sucks!” – and demanding people do better. Equally important, as a returning founder CEO, he enjoyed untrammeled authority to be focussed, uncompromising, and obsessive about excellence. No-one was going to step in say “This is too much stress for the team to bear.” And it probably helped that however obnoxious he was after his 1996 return, he was likely less obnoxious than people might have feared given the legend of his first period at Apple. Finally, his famed charisma and persuasiveness helped people identify with him and keep working for him even when he yelled at them.

Contrast that with the changes at HP. In February and March, HP CEO Leo Apotheker declared WebOS central to their strategy, and said the PC business gave them “an immense competitive advantage”. In August, he abandoned both. The justifications were classic business-school-style strategy – HP is getting out of low-margin consumer products, and seeking to build a high-margin enterprise service-and-software business.

Those may – or may not – be wise moves strategically. But whether they are or not, the success of HP is more likely to be driven by whether they can do what they choose to do well, rather than by what they choose to do. Here the signs are not good. Indeed, the very way the PC-division spin out has been fumbled, in contrast to IBM’s PC-division sale in 2004 through 2005, is strongly suggestive of a lack of focus on excellence. Similarly, observers can’t help but get a sinking feeling over HP’s purchase of Autonomy – HP is getting into a business (software) it doesn’t know much about, it is doing it in a peculiar way, and it will most likely make a mess of it over time – won’t it?

HP CEO Leo Apotheker needs to find the leadership authority, and inner will, to say “That’s unacceptable” – he could even try a “That sucks!” – and to really mean it by following through on demanding something better, or no strategy is likely to prove successful.

Startup CEOs usually have the authority (exceptions being when there are other entrenched founders, or overly invasive investors, or unusually footloose employees) to declare “That’s unacceptable”, and follow through on it. For all the reasons discussed, it can be hard to do it. Yet, like it or not, do it is one of the keys to building a great company.

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2 responses to “Steve Jobs and the Importance of “Unacceptable”

  1. I’d reverse the view that Steve Jobs represents the triumph of “vision over execution”. The impression you get as an outsider is that Apple is all about an uncompromising focus on getting every aspect of execution completely correct.

  2. Yep. At least for Steve Job’s “second coming”, I do think that’s what they are.
    But plenty of folks like to focus on “vision” as the pre-eminent driver of Apple’s success… even though it’s mostly not.