Life without Steve

Jobs has shown all companies how to restructure for innovation. Will we follow his lead?

 

I don’t want to clutter the web with my addition to the obits for Steve Jobs, who died earlier today. As I sit typing on my MacBook Pro, listening to iTunes in a café in central Paris, using a wifi connection I found using an iPhone app, I hardly need remind anyone of the impact Mr Jobs has had on our lives.

When I left university no one had a computer. I learned computing on an Apple Mac — a giant beige box — because I was apprenticed to a graphic designer. The Mac was then known as an expensive, exclusive professional tool for media and creatives. You couldn’t get one on the high street: reps came. In the Mac-related magazines I bought, Jobs, by then long gone from the company he co-founded, was a dirty word, routinely drubbed as a loose cannon. Friends mocked me for my geeky Mac obsession — which they saw as self-consciously alternative and “creative” — even as they rebooted their PCs after MS Office crashed for the eighth time and their hard disks had been eaten up by worm viruses and adware.

By the time I had saved up to buy a second-hand Mac, Apple as a company was near death — victim of its own arrogance and attachment to vertical integration — and it looked as though it would go the way of Betamax. Then we had the second coming of Jobs, the birth of the affordable, trend-setting iMac, the iPod and the regeneration of a brand that today dominates our daily lives. Gradually, the desirability of Apple products permeated public consciousness and those who had mocked a few years earlier now boasted. I knew Jobs had won when status-conscious corporate types started with the “sent from my iPad” rather than the “sent from my Blackberry”.

Here’s what I want to take from this. The sacking of Jobs from his own company and his subsequent return — not only to rescue it from the brink of banruptcy but also to transform the computing, the entertainment and the communication industries — is a salutory lesson for all companies. Jobs’ firing was a product of corporate power politics and nothing more. Jobs was judged not corporate enough, too fiery, creative and entrepreneurial to play well with others on the board. He was basically kicked out for possessing a challenging personality and a fierce vision. These things can be threatening to those who don’t have them, but without them somewhere in your company, you’re sunk. Apple threw the baby out with the bathwater and paid a terrible price.

Jobs was re-hired for the same reasons he was fired. In the interim he had founded Pixar and learned many lessons. He had matured somewhat but lost none of the vision and, by all accounts, little of the fire. On his return, aside from recreating the brand, Jobs deliberately altered the hierarchical structure of the company to avoid the kind of fiefdom- building and power-play that harm innovation. Executives at Apple now radiate out from the CEO in a circle. Power is spread: the head of the online store, for example, doesn’t get to choose what is stocked, nor the design. Project leaders are appointed based on talent for the particular job at hand and no other reason.

The vertical hierarchy is over. It’s an artificial and outmoded structure, based on nothing but our own vanity. As Facebook has shown, the world is now a network and in a network, collaboration and crowd-sourcing of ideas and information are the routes to success. If companies persist in rewarding individual performance with pecking order status and power over others, they will only encourage zero-sum competition. Positions of power are usually won by the people who most want power, not by the people most able to innovate. Once positions of power are obtained, the executives concerned are no longer coming into work to do their jobs. They are coming in every day to maintain and defend their position. Politics take precedence over productivity. New ideas threaten such power structures and are crushed. We’ve all seen it. No wonder few companies can really innovate.

Innovation requires trust, mutual respect and collaboration. Companies with traditional vertical power structures can and do achieve innovative miracles, by plucking individuals away from their daily routines, creating task forces and suspending power-politics for a limited brief and a limited time. It works, but there is an erroneous consensus that this kind of “peak performance” microcosm cannot be maintained on a daily basis. Yes it can. Jobs did it. You change the structure, you change the reward. You reward innovation, you reward collaboration, you reward challenges to the business model and challenges to the status quo. You reward drive, curiosity and creativity. And — as Google does — you reward these with autonomy, rather than power. Autonomy is all we really need to be satisfied. Power is how we usually get it. But that can change. When we all do this, we may all produce something as majestic and world-changing as Jobs did.

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