Apple R&D and Steve Jobs Methodology: Engaged Leader

27 Mar 2011 Sandeep Mehta

Let us continue our discussion on the Steve Jobs methodology. We discussed user centric design as the fundamental tenet of new product development under Jobs. We also talked about how a long-term vision, bounded by user centric design and supported by deep understanding of technology roadmaps is critical to long-term success.  However, it is not enough to just have that understanding.  A good R&D manager is able to roll up her or his sleeves and get engaged.  A leader has to take part in the product development – that is probably the only way one can really understand technology challenges and translate desired user experience into real delivered products.

In fact, when we look around, all great innovative companies seem to have leaders that are completely engaged in their R&D.  Bill Gates was driving product development personally in Microsoft’s hay day.  As we have all seen, Zukerberg has personally driven R&D at Facebook.  Google had to bring back their founders to actually get back to innovating.  It is important for the leaders to be engaged because only they can have the cross organizational perspective.  Steve Jobs also seems to personify this engaged leader.  However, there may be many ways in which the leaders can be engaged.  Let us start off with the information from the transcript of an interview with ex-Apple CEO John Sculley and see what we can learn…
Steve Jobs was engaged completely from the perspective of industrial design and user experience:

Whether it’s designing the look and feel of the user experience, or the industrial design, or the system design and even things like how the boards were laid out. The boards had to be beautiful in Steve’s eyes when you looked at them, even though when he created the Macintosh he made it impossible for a consumer to get in the box because he didn’t want people tampering with anything.

Furthermore, this interest was not just high level.

On one level he is working at the “change the world,” the big concept. At the other level he is working down at the details of what it takes to actually build a product and design the software, the hardware, the systems design and eventually the applications, the peripheral products that connect to it.

He actually worked to understand how better industrial design can be achieved:

The one that Steve admired was Sony. We used to go visit Akio Morita and he had really the same kind of high-end standards that Steve did and respect for beautiful products. I remember Akio Morita gave Steve and me each one of the first Sony Walkmans. None of us had ever seen anything like that before because there had never been a product like that. This is 25 years ago and Steve was fascinated by it. The first thing he did with his was take it apart and he looked at every single part. How the fit and finish was done, how it was built.

Many people can take apart products and learn from them. A great R&D leader actually builds a culture around the user experience.  Jobs learned about manufacturing from Sony and built it into the Apple manufacturing:

He was fascinated by the Sony factories. We went through them. They would have different people in different colored uniforms. Some would have red uniforms, some green, some blue, depending on what their functions were. It was all carefully thought out and the factories were spotless. Those things made a huge impression on him.

And the results were impressive:

That went all the way through to the systems when he built the Macintosh factory. It was supposed to be the first automated factory but what it really was a final assembly and test factory with a pick-to-pack robotic automation. It is not as novel today as it was 25 years ago, but I can remember when the CEO of General Motors along with Ross Perot came out just to look at the Macintosh factory. All we were doing was final assembly and test but it was done so beautifully. It was as well thought through in design as a factory, a lights out factory requiring many people as the products were.

The same thinking is also visible in Pixar’s building architecture.  Jobs personally got involved in the design of the building to drive an interactive culture:

Our building, which is Steve Jobs’s brainchild, is another way we try to get people from different departments to interact. Most buildings are designed for some functional purpose, but ours is structured to maximize inadvertent encounters.

The same trend is also visible in the design of the iPod supply-chain:

If you look at the state of the iPod, the supply chain going all the way over to iPod city in China – it is as sophisticated as the design of the product itself. The same standards of perfection are just as challenging for the supply chain as they are for the user design. It is an entirely different way of looking at things.

So, the take home message is this: R&D managers have to be system level thinkers that can drop down into detailed development when needed to help translate the system vision for their employees.

It was always an end-to-end system with Steve. He was not a designer but a great systems thinker. That is something you don’t see with other companies. They tend to focus on their piece and outsource everything else.

Not to say that there are no problems with an engaged leader.  In case of Jobs:

His tradeoff was he believed that he had to control the entire system. He made every decision. The boxes were locked.

This desire to control can also lead to (arguably) poor decisions:

Before they could start designing the iPhone, Jobs and his top executives had to decide how to solve this problem. Engineers looked carefully at Linux, which had already been rewritten for use on mobile phones, but Jobs refused to use someone else’s software. They built a prototype of a phone, embedded on an iPod, that used the clickwheel as a dialer, but it could only select and dial numbers — not surf the Net. So, in early 2006, just as Apple engineers were finishing their yearlong effort to revise OS X to work with Intel chips, Apple began the process of rewriting OS X again for the iPhone.

However, as they say, the proof is in the pudding.  Apple’s market value has surpassed that of Microsoft! An example from the Wired article The Untold Story: How the iPhone Blew Up the Wireless Industry:

After a year and a half of secret meetings, Jobs had finally negotiated terms with the wireless division of the telecom giant (Cingular at the time) to be the iPhone’s carrier. In return for five years of exclusivity, roughly 10 percent of iPhone sales in AT&T stores, and a thin slice of Apple’s iTunes revenue, AT&T had granted Jobs unprecedented power. He had cajoled AT&T into spending millions of dollars and thousands of man-hours to create a new feature, so-called visual voicemail, and to reinvent the time-consuming in-store sign-up process. He’d also wrangled a unique revenue-sharing arrangement, garnering roughly $10 a month from every iPhone customer’s AT&T bill. On top of all that, Apple retained complete control over the design, manufacturing, and marketing of the iPhone.

In summary, it is my opinion that great leaders get engaged in product development for their companies.  They participate in the development and get to know their development teams (more about this in the next Apple post).  They have a vision for where the company wants to go and they communicate it through actions, not just words.  They have to realize that only they can tie together all the different disciplines involved in getting a product to the market and help achieve that.  What do you say?

For more, please continue to the next component of the Steve Jobs Methodology: Small Focused R&D Team.

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