Richard Rumelt’s reflections on Apple and Steve Jobs

Here is a recent post by Richard Rumelt. He is the author Good Strategy/Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters and the Harry and Elsa Kunin Professor of Business and Society at the UCLA Anderson School of Management.   I urge you to read the book and visit his website. To do so, please click here.

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When Steve Jobs stepped down from the CEO position at Apple, many people began to reflect on the nature of his contributions.

Under his leadership, Apple has become one of the most successful American companies of all time. Along with Intel, Microsoft, and Google, it has shaped much of what people experience as the new digital economy

Steve Jobs contribution to Apple has been profound. Steve Jobs is not an engineer himself, yet he has guided Apple into being one of the great engineering companies, in the true sense of what it means to “engineer.” Apple did not invent personal computers, or the mouse and windows interface, nor did it invent digital music players, smartphones, or tablets. What it has done is to engineer products in these categories that are uniquely beautiful, efficient, easy to operate, and a joy to own and use.

This kind of design excellence is very difficult to achieve. It depends on a great many elements all working together and all working at a very high level. Like the excellence of a great film or work of music, the whole can be quickly ruined by a single false note. Steve Jobs’ special genius has been in holding to this very high standard and imposing it on the very talented engineers he has recruited to Apple. Competitors have raced to be first to market or to include the most features in their products, but have built products which are clunky and awkward in comparison to Apple’s.

To fully understand Apple, it is vital to look at the difference between its kind of excellence and cutting edge visionary technology. Back in 1993, CEO John Scully had Apple introduce a tablet called the “Newton.” It was visionary and advanced, attempting to recognize handwriting. Unfortunately, you cannot reliably do that, just as you cannot reliably implement voice recognition. When he returned to Apple in 1997, Steve Jobs killed the Newton. The secret of Apple’s excellence is not in living on the unworkable bleeding edge, but in doing exceptionally well that which can be done well with present technology.

Many people and companies want to emulate Apple and study what the company has done. I believe that in trying to learn from Steve Jobs and Apple it is very useful to pay attention to what he did not do. In compiling this short list, I have used ideas and phrases in common use by managers and business consultants.

• He did not “drive business success by a relentless focus on performance metrics.” Success came to Apple by having successful products and strategies, not by chasing metrics.

• He did not “motivate high performance by tying incentives to key strategic success factors.” Apple did not run a decentralized system based on pressuring individuals to deliver targeted business results.

• He did not have a strategy “built through participation by all levels to achieve a consensus which resolves key differences in perspectives and values.” Strategy at Apple is essentially driven from the top.

• He did not waste time on the delicate distinctions among “missions,” “visions,” and “strategies.”

• He did not use acquisitions to hit “strategic growth goals.” Growth was the outcome of successful product development and accompanying business strategies.

• He did not seek to engineer higher margins by chasing rust-belt concepts of “economies of scale.” He left such antics to HP.

Emulating Apple is not easy, but it is not impossible either. We are all surrounded by so-called high-tech products that promise much more than they deliver. I am writing this article on a Dell Inspiron 2305 that is a lovely all-in-one computer but which has a stereo sound system that cannot be heard three feet away. I expected my wife’s HTC Incredible 2 Android phone would provide a seamless interface to Google documents, but there is no such capability. RIM has built its market position on professional grade email, yet is trying to sell a tablet without email capability. Just two weeks ago I returned an HP 4500 Office Jet printer because its drivers refused to install on my Windows 7 64-bit system (a problem reported by many others over two years.

The secret to emulating Apple lies in its efficiency at excellent design. Indeed, Apple has awakened many people to the value and joy of excellence in design. Not just the prettiness of the box, not just the simplicity of the interface, but the whole sense that a product is the best it can be, for the moment, at what it does

Also, to see some of my comments in print and video at Apple Changed the Way the World Communicates, please click here.


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