Ideas, Not Hierarchy: On Steve Jobs Supposedly Making All Apple Decisions

I’ve read more than a few articles since Steve Jobs’ resignation as CEO that question how Apple will perform without him there to call all the shots. It reminded me of a conversation he had with Walt Mossberg at the D8 conference (starting at around the 1-hour mark). He was asked what a typical work day for him would be like: 

Jobs: What I do all day is meet with teams of people and work on ideas and solve problems to make new products, to make new marketing programs, whatever it is. 

Mossberg: And are people willing to tell you you’re wrong? 

Jobs: (laughs) Yeah.

Mossberg: I mean, other than snarky journalists, I mean people that work for…

Jobs: Oh, yeah, no we have wonderful arguments.

Mossberg: And do you win them all? 

Jobs: Oh no I wish I did. No, you see you can’t. If you want to hire great people and have them stay working for you, you have to let them make a lot of decisions and you have to, you have to be run by ideas, not hierarchy. The best ideas have to win, otherwise good people don’t stay. 

Mossberg: But you must be more than a facilitator who runs meetings. You obviously contribute your own ideas. 

Jobs: I contribute ideas, sure. Why would I be there if I didn’t? 

I love the last line. Jobs says it so matter of factly, as if it’s obvious. And it is, to him. But for many people it’s not, they think Jobs is there because he’s Jobs. Period. Yet from his answer you can see that in his mind he’s there because he’s another of the “great people” working at Apple and helping make the decisions about which ideas are best. 

No one denies that the Apple executive team is brilliant, yet it seems many are willing to believe they’re just puppets. I’d argue the two are mutually exclusive. Jobs is right, brilliant people won’t stand for the best idea consistently losing. They’ll leave. I think there’s a reason for this management team’s relative longevity. They like making consistent winners, not being shouted down by seniority or politics and producing failures. 

18 thoughts on “Ideas, Not Hierarchy: On Steve Jobs Supposedly Making All Apple Decisions

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  2. Thanks for the link with that conversation with Walt Mossberg, good one to remember.

  3. Martin, you’re falling into the trap of thinking Jobs has some kind of magic. Companies do kill good ideas, with focus groups, feature creep (Flash anyone?), crowd sourcing, design by committee, etc. It happens quite a lot. What Jobs/Apple does right is implement the idea without adding noise.I was never looking back at the iPad, the idea of the iPad has been coming since the 80s (and arguably earlier). Ever hear of the Apple Newton? I’ve been waiting for touch computing for many, many years. Heck, if you read a lot of sci fi (which I do), then you’ve been aware of the concept of mobile touch for a very, very long time. The problem that needed solving is a computer you can take with you, and the solution is obvious. It’s the implementation that is hard. You might say a laptop already solved that problem, but look at a laptop as a pragmatist, without bias, and you’ll understand that the laptop isn’t an elegant solution. A notebook is an even worse solution. The touch interface and/or voice interaction is the solution, and voice isn’t practical as the primary interface.It’s also obvious that you can’t successfully launch a touch platform without a robust development framework and tons of apps, as well as an ecosystem that delivers content (iTunes). Apple has been working on the foundation for mobile computing for a long, long time. Other companies are failing with their tablets because they haven’t prepared the soil, they’re just launching a tablet with a PC mindset (specs! specs! 1.2 GHZ! Flash!). Just the raw idea isn’t enough, you have to think it through front to back and then implement it.

  4. It just seems to me that the worst products that come out of Apple are the ones that Jobs doesn’t seem to be “hands on” with.If Vic Gundotra’s Jobs anecdote is true, than why would Lion ship with scroll bars that hover over content that you should be able to click on? Why does WiFi suddenly only occasionally work on a clean installed Lion machine that is less than a year old?How could Steve notice a misplaced shade of yellow in Google’s logo on the iPhone and miss these small, but far larger flaws in Lion? I believe that he just wasn’t paying attention to the Lion project, he was busy working on iCloud, iPad and the Next Infinite Loop campus etc.

  5. Space Gorilla, you are right. But there’s a HUGE but:You look at the whole thing from today’s perspective. Of course the iPad is the obvious next step in personal computing. Of course that is what Apple makes successful. But it’s easy to look back point at an idea and say: Look, that’s what you have to do!It’s how (and who) GOT that idea that is what makes the difference. Having the right idea and vision is the hardest part of this job. Don’t make a mistake and think that it might be so easy.IF others would also have ideas as good as the ones that Apple puts on the market, logic would dictate that those ideas would also get to the market. Because, just like you said, the best idea usually wins. I don’t know a single company that kills a good idea, just because it’s too expensive to make or not feasible to produce, especially not if another company (Apple) tells you that id obviously works.No, it’s not that easy. In fact, others don’t have ideas that are THAT good. Others have mediocre ideas. And next to what was produced in the 80ies, 90ies and early 2000s, that might have been enough to build a company like HP, Dell or Adobe. But that time is over. People understand now that products don’t have to be bad. That’s why others fail. They still think mediocre ideas can win when they loose – plus they lack better ideas.

  6. All this nonsense about the reality distortion field, or Jobs being some kind of singular genius, or the Apple faithful gobbling up whatever Jobs sells, or the familiar meme of ‘it’s just marketing’, these are all excuses created by people who can’t understand why Apple is successful. The reason is simple, pragmatism. The best solution wins. Period. Jobs says this in the quote. You’d be surprised how hard it is to get the best idea/solution implemented. I work with a lot of non-profit clients and the best idea almost never wins. The idea that everyone can live with is what wins. I suspect this is true of most companies (it’s why they launch half-baked products). What’s different about Apple is the best solution actually does get implemented. And that’s why Apple will continue to succeed. There’s nothing revolutionary about the iPad, it was the best (and obvious) solution to the next step in computing. Anyone who looked at the first iPad and said ‘This will fail’ was an idealogue. Every pragmatist looked at the first iPad and said ‘It’s so obvious, this is going to be huge.’

  7. I think of Jobs’ role with products as being that he is user #1. The products are made for Jobs by Apple, not by Jobs for the end user. But the confusing part of this is Jobs is also part of Apple, so sometimes he helps to make a product. But the key thing, I think, is that an iPhone or other product is not even going to be offered to the general public until it has both delighted Steve’s inner child and convinced him of its go-to-market strategy. Then when the user gets it, it is not broken, or incomplete, or strangely inscrutable or flawed in some fatal way. It already passed Steve’s high standards.Jobs has not left the company. Since the announcement of his becoming Chairman, he has attended both an Apple and a Disney board meeting. Apple is going to have to keep pleasing him with every product. He will keep saying, “no, not good enough,” and people will keep listening.And even once Steve retires, he has taught enough of us both inside and outside Apple about the culture of Apple products and high standards of design and engineering that he’s not the only guy who can do that job anymore.As far as Apple employees making decisions, all you have to do is watch some sessions from Apple’s developer conference and see the depth of complexity that is contained in the technologies within an Apple product. The idea that Steve developed the innovative way OS X launches apps or creates graphics is just totally crazy. There are a lot of people at Apple who could be running their own smaller companies or could have their pick of a job at hundreds of really great companies. They have a lot of rock stars over there. The Apple community has a culture of paying for better gear. Apple is full of people who get paid for making better gear. It is a great arrangement. Part of Steve’s genius was setting up that arrangement. It is not going to evaporate without Steve. Neither will the company or the people or the technology or the users. I can’t run my creative studio on HP’s quaint DOS systems, I need CoreAudio and the Unix layer. That is not going away.Truth is, if we weren’t distracted by Steve’s health, we would probably be talking more in terms of dynasties. Consider how big Apple is in music players and music sales, they are about 75%, and the other 25% is split among hundreds, with no single non-Apple participant ever having more than 9%. In tablets and high-end PC’s, Apple is even more dominant: 90% of those markets is Apple. And tablets are eating low-end PC’s. Then in phones, although they only have like 6% market share, they have 66% of all the profits and the best-selling, most-desirable devices that have set all the trends for 4 years. These are sticky devices, because they spoil you. They just have to keep making them better so every 1-3 years when we show up for a replacement, the new one explains how it will save you even more time or money or work.So we are really in a place where we should put Apple at the bottom of the list of device makers we are worried about. Motorola changed hands twice in a year, HP just stopped making phones and tablets and at the very least expressed their disinterest in making PC’s, and LG is about to stop making phones.

  8. I would argue that Steve Jobs needed the team at least as much as Apple needs Steve Jobs. Would he have been as successful if he didn’t have the team? The past tells a different story – millions have been wasted and products have failed. Apple would be nothing without Cook & Ive.

  9. That’s probably true, Stacy. Product development usually takes about three years, so at least for this amount of time I consider Apple to be “save”. And don’t forget that Jobs will of course also stay at Apple, he’s not gone at all. He said he wants to be an “active board member and Apple employee”, which means he will continue to do what he does, only with a bit less responsibilities in the area of running the whole shop. I bet you’ll still find him in product meetings designing stuff and solving problems, just as he did for the past 1.5 decade. I personally don’t expect anything to change after three to four years after he is gone for good. (Which he, considering his health, sadly will be at some point in the future.)It’s the time after his last ideas at Apple came to market that bother me.

  10. Just speculation on my part, but I expect that Apple has some things in the pipeline that would carry their product and service strategies through the next several years at a minimum. I get the impression they are fairly long-term in their planning (broader goals) and iterate specific product details over time in support of those goals.

  11. This is a very good point and I had the same thoughts when I saw the clip two days ago.But then, there’s one more detail you must not overlook with this: Jobs is not the only guy with good ideas, that’s right. The whole Apple campus is full with the very best of the industry. But all those ideas need to be digested. They need to follow a greater vision. And they need to be made into products that serve a purpose, fill a gap or amaze people who never used Apple products. They need to be channelled to become great and viable go-to-market strategies.That is what Jobs is a lot better in as all the other tech CEOs are. By far. You can see that every day in this industry. Jobs is the visionary that brought all those loose ends together.Cook is a great guy. He delivered a very good job during Jobs’ absence. The products stayed as good as they were, the quality stayed as high as it were and tech innovations came about as they were, just like during times of Jobs’ reign. But can Cook also break up old rules in the music and mobile phone industry? Can he also reinvent how successful movies are being made? Can he re-imagine how we would like use computers in the future?I sure hope so, but I doubt it.Apple is not doomed with Jobs gone at the helm. But it might become just one of those other great and innovative tech companies with a successful hit from time to time. But I doubt it will stay the phenomenon it became under Jobs’ leadership.

  12. Considering the attention to detail that Jobs brings to product development, marketing message, etc, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he would approach succession planning and the longevity of the organization in the same way.

  13. “They like making cosistent winners, not being shouted down by seniority or politics and producing failures. “Sounds like Pixar, too. Steve’s blueprint to success.

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