On Monday, my Postlight co-founder Paul Ford wrote an article here asserting that we shouldn’t be surprised that a big, hulking company like Apple can’t unleash a game-changing piece of technology in 2016 because…well…it’s big, and hulking, and really more motivated to make big bags of money than change the world.
Hmmmmmmmmm. Sure, unleashing something that changes the game doesn’t happen very often. It happens very rarely and it’s really hard to pull off. And big companies are just way too big and complicated to do anything revolutionary. Powerful change agents are usually startups. Google was a tiny fraction of Yahoo. Microsoft was a tiny fraction of IBM.
But there’s a problem with Paul’s argument: Apple was a big, hulking company when the iPhone came out in 2006. Sure it wasn’t as insanely huge as it is today. But it wasn’t some nimble startup. It had thousands of employees and a few successful product lines (iPods, Macs, and so on).
So why was that company able to pull off something like the iPhone? The answer is widely known: Steve Jobs. Steve Jobs came in with the NeXT acquisition, navigated through Apple’s hierarchies, took over the company, and managed one of the most spectacular business turnarounds and ascendancies in corporate history. I don’t need to rehash the Steve Jobs story here.
At my root I’m a product manager and like all product managers I’ve spent more time than is healthy thinking about Steve Jobs. That incredible innovation didn’t happen because Steve Jobs was brilliant. There are lots of geniuses in the world. The reason the iPhone was able to emerge out of a massive publicly traded company is not due to Steve Jobs’ intellect. The reason the iPhone (and the iPod and the iMac and the iPad) emerged is because Steve Jobs was a whiny crybaby.
Steve Jobs’s brilliance was to see the end product in his mind’s eye. The reason he was able to make it a reality is because he was a brutal tyrant, absolutely and thoroughly immune to the politics and personalities that would inevitably pick away and water down his vision.
The product gestation process in a large organization goes like this:
- Product Inventor (PI) has an idea.
- PI goes to stakeholders (investors, upper management, partners, whatever) and pitches that idea.
- Stakeholders pick at it. They start to pollute the waters almost immediately. Usually that’s a good thing. They’re trying to make the right decision. Usually.
- By the time something goes into design and development, the idea is already compromised. Again, that may be for the best, but nonetheless that clear, initial vision is long gone.
Steve Jobs had a few things going for him:
- He was really smart and had great taste. Again, many people are really smart and have great taste. So just this one trait isn’t really going to cut it.
- He was the CEO and had access to enormous resources, plus he had what you might call “narrative capital”—his return to Apple was a big story that created its own momentum. He basically didn’t need anyone’s sign-off or approval when he decided to cut Apple’s product line and change the company’s focus. Yes, there was a board and senior team but…
- He was a belligerent, petulant baby who expected you to do whatever he wanted. He didn’t care if everyone got along. Any whiff of outside interest or agenda would immediately be neutralized in his presence. If you got in the way of what he wanted you would be fired. When he didn’t get what he wanted he cried at meetings.
When you look at today’s Apple, there’s much there to admire. As Paul pointed out, their products are a design and engineering marvel. Yet as many others have pointed out, none of it is very innovative or surprising. It’s just one safe, incremental update after another.
I have no doubt that there are some brilliant people at Apple and that they would love to take risks and change the game. Those people exist everywhere. There’s lot they can do at the scale of Apple. But ultimately they don’t have the kind of raw baby power described above.
There’s a lot of discussion and literature around whether you need a whiny crybaby or tyrant to run things, or if it’s possible to build consensus with kindness. People need to decide for themselves what kind of leaders they’ll serve, and what kind of leaders they will be — this is why you can quit jobs, and why Democracy works over the long haul. But I do think it’s worth noting that in the case of Apple, it wasn’t just that a storm of innovation rolled in and lightning struck. The lightning and thunder were created by one very long, very large tantrum.