Using Steve Jobs’ Death to Bring Us Back To Life

From Steve Jobs’ Stanford University commencement address, June 2005   This was while he was at Pixar, before rejoining Apple.  [The italics are mine.]

“I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life…”

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary…”

So perhaps the shock of Steve Jobs’ death can jolt us out of the rut that the “heaviness of being successful” has put us in and steer us off of the self-destructive path of conformity, arrogance and groupthink.  We used to be a nation filled with Steve Jobs’ and Apple’s, focused not on petty politics and power, but on creating and selling the goods and services that made the world a better place. Steve Job’s speeches really hit home – but not because we never heard “think big, think different, nothing you cant do” before.  Rather, because we grew up infused with that optimism.  If Americans can agree on anything these days, it’s that innovation represents our greatest opportunity to revitalize our economy and get us going again.

But to get there, we need to  understand  what can we learn from his example that can make a difference in the organizations and institutions to which we contribute?  What do leaders need to understand in order to create an environment in which people can feel excited about a future with endless possibilities and the confidence that together we can do anything?  So if we want to get back on the road to innovative excellence, be prepared to take the harder one – the one less traveled.  Here are the principles that, in my view, are likely to get and keep you on that path:

1.     Product must trump profit

Just when the technical community thought there was nothing Jobs could do to top his most recent amazing product, he would stand on the Apple amphitheater stage and say matter-of-factly – “Oh, and one more thing.”

The non-Apple entertainment industry puts profit before product and their audience and employees know the difference. You can see it in the television,  executives compete to see who can best follow the latest trends, rather than invest in creating one. The success strategy has become recycling the hot ideas, actors, and formulas over and over and over again until every drop of value is drained (i.e., reality shows like dancing, singing, cooking, shopping, cleaning, losing weight and humiliating yourself with the stars).

In the movie business, you don’t want to hear executives say “creative”, “different”, “original”, or “thought provoking” when describing your project.  The audience will never get it – plus its much cheaper to stay with what works. The best is defined as that product which has the best likelihood of making an immediate profit – Not what would a movie lover would appreciate most.

And speaking of entertainment,  news executives have figured out that they can close foreign news bureaus, replace news with entertainment and opinion,  and get even bigger audiences!

Steve Jobs channeled all his energy into product perfection.  Wealth was the happy consequence, but not the objective. I don’t think we can say the same for most of our biggest industries where money and profit have become the ends, and the goods and services they create, the means.

As soon as money becomes the mission of an organization, the innovation instinct begins to atrophy.  The gravitational forces go in a totally opposite direction when the product revolves around the profit.  Once it’s all about the money, it can no longer be all about the quality of the product.

When the focus is on the quality of the product or service, talented employees are the most important investment.  Steve Jobs managed to get the very best talent in the industry. When it’s all about money, people are an expense and eventually, that’s how they are going to feel going to work.  People love getting paid and being a billionaire is probably awesome, but it’s never what drives the very best and most talented employees.

2. Respect your Customer

Steve Jobs was said never to use focus groups.  He and the Apple employees  were the focus group. They are stars and fan club, inextricably bound with their product.  There is no “Us and Them.” It’s all us  which leads to a level of trust that you can’t buy with an advertising campaign.  The more an ad campaign is designed to send the message “You can trust us; It’s not about the money” the more you shouldn’t trust them because it is all about the money.  I just read that after Steve Jobs died, customers spontaneously congregated at Apple stores in Asia to grieve and pay their respects.  Further evidence of the trust he enjoyed was that people buy Apple product without asking about price.  There is never a sale.  Rather, there is a sense that these guys are not about money – they are about product.  Everything they do on the Apple campus is about designing what will make us happy, and designing the best. at the lowest cost.

Focus groups are a double-edged sword.  They provide information that can help an organization design products and services that satisfy their customers, or provide an information that tells them how much they can get away with to achieve the organization’s goals at the expense of the customer.

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