What I’ve learned from Steve Jobs: Strategy

A lot of people use the word ‘strategy’ in discussions when they relate to what they do or what they’ve done in the past. The word is often used incorrectly as a job description task as opposed to what it really should be: A direction and a state of mind.

The responsibility of strategy sits directly in the mind of every CEO and this also applies to the one person organization or entrepreneur.

Having a strategy answers the questions: “Where are we now?” and, “Where are we going?”  Easy questions right? Finding the answers to those questions is a little more complicated.

In my career I was Director of Strategic Planning for a leading mobile operator in the Czech Republic. It was a lot of fun; it was considered a ‘staff ’ position meaning I was not in charge of daily operations or being on the front ‘line’ but my role was to lead discussions and write  a strategic plan with the executive team.

This plan would answer the questions above; it required a closer look at industry trends in the next 5 years and fine-tune our role given that we were a significant player in this industry.

With a lot of healthy debates, the management team approved the plan and the CEO could tick the box for one of his responsibilities as he reminded the shareholders in board meetings of the strategic direction that was agreed to.

Steve Jobs understood strategy as a state of mind. He was always looking long term, looking into the future. Strategy was an innate skill for him.  He refused to get tangled into monthly results or meeting the next quarter’s target – he took a long term stance and never deflected. He understood what he (and Apple) had to become.

This second article dives into the strategic mind of Steve Jobs. With Walter Isaacson’s help, I will quote a few passages of this amazing book on the life of Jobs.

End-to-end Control

When PCs were in the process of becoming ‘mainstream‘ there were two opposing views to delivering software for hardware:

  1. Bill Gates’s ‘shared view’ where Microsoft would license to any PC manufacturer and,
  2. Steve Jobs’s  view of a more integrated approach. In other words, Apple hardware would only work with Apple software (OS) and no other manufacturers would have access to Apple’s OS.

Indeed, Apple did play around by licensing its software to a few manufacturers but at one point Apple backtracked; paid the contract termination penalties, settled legally and kept its own OS and would never take that route again, regardless if Gates was quoted to having said: Jobs’s end-to-end control of the software and the hardware was destined for failure.”

This was a gutsy move for Jobs. As Microsoft was growing tremendously and licensing software, Apple would remain a small, niche player.

To use military terms when being attacked by a powerful foe, Jobs would ‘hold the line’.

Screen Shot 2016-10-23 at 22.52.00

Fast-forwarding to today, Apple’s strategy paid off. Yes Microsoft did well too but as we will see later, Apple’s brand equity soared as Jobs transformed not only the personal computer industry but also portable music players, digital music, tablets, mobile phones and books.

To quote Jobs on his unabated view of an integrated approach:

“We do this not because we are control freaks. We do them because we want to make great products, because we care about the user and because we like to take responsibility for the entire experience rather than turn out the crap that other people make”.

Ask any avid Apple user why he/she chose Apple and why he paid a premium. From a pure pragmatic point of view the Apple premium alone makes no sense…unless of course:

1) The Apple brand resonates with you;

2) You LOVE the product as opposed to ‘liking’ a PC.

3) You feel part of the Apple cult.

4) You agree with Jobs’s quote: “There’s a deep current of humanity in our innovation.”

 It worked! Jobs’s long term view prevailed. Be obsessed with quality; deliver a Great (not good) product and own the experience – regardless of what’s happening outside! 

Ask yourself now: 

Are you this obsessed with your products or services?

Do you view success on a long term view?

Do you care about the user?

Are you willing to ‘hold the line’ when confronted with what ‘seems’ to be competition?

New Product Development

Ask any savvy Marketer what’s the secret for remaining competitive?

Answer: Launch new products!

Why? Well when it comes to food, people’s tastes change – they get bored of the same flavor; they want excitement; they want to try something new. We get tired of driving the same car.

That Itch cycle’  which means the average amount of time that people keep something  and start wishing for something new, is getting shorter and shorter.

If you agree with this then the next question is OK…How many products/services do we need to launch? Do you take this approach to the extreme by launching say, 3 new products? How about 5 new products by next quarter?

Every new product needs an adequate period of time for people to hear about it, see the product, test it , taste it , sample it and hopefully buy it often enough to be part of a new habit. This takes time and money to advertise.

Adding to what statistics tell us, we’re bombarded by approximately 1200 brands daily so how do we maintain ‘top of mind awareness’?

Jobs had 4 ways to solve this problem of New Product Development:

1) Fewer, not more.

If his team was looking at introducing 10 products, Jobs would manage the meeting and discuss ideas and moments before leaving he would say: “You will prepare 3…not 10. Once you‘ve kicked around the ones you like and have prepared a design and prototype, then I’ll tell you if you’re on the right track!”

Jobs was right again. His laser focus would force the team to look at fewer products by design them so that the product would scream: ‘Look at me.’  

Jobs would say: “Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do. That’s true for companies and it’s true for products.”

2)Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

Jobs was obsessed on how simple products had to be for the user. This makes sense. How many times do manufacturers actually make their product easy to understand and use? This may sound easy to do but many times, they fail.
Screen Shot 2016-10-23 at 22.51.46
This was unacceptable for Jobs. From the moment you unpack the product to the moment you use it, that whole experience had to me momentous…and one more thing’ it’s got to be simple.

3) Product appeal

Jobs also had the view that the product had to have ‘Appeal’.

This appeal needed to come from Apple employees first! That may sound egocentric but it made sense since it drove passion and commitment to any new product. As Jobs put it:

“We made the iPod for ourselves, and when you’re doing something for yourself, or for your best friend or family, you’re not going to cheese out. If you don’t love something, you’re not going to go the extra mile, the extra weekend, challenge the status quo.”

4) Market research

Most marketers conduct market research; they ask people for opinions through surveys, online studies and conduct countless focus groups to get insights and to read trends. It’s essential right?

Not for Jobs. He didn’t believe in Market Research:

Jobs once said:  “Some people say, ‘Give the customers what they want’ but that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do. I think Henry Ford once said: ‘If I’d asked customers what they wanted they would have told me: A faster horse’. People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page”.

As we can see strategy doesn’t have to be complex – Jobs has proven this.

A strategy however has to be discussed, formalized, agreed, communicated, shared with all and more importantly it has to be executed. That’s where the ‘wheels usually fall off the cart’ – one step or many are missing.

Despite Jobs’s annoying habits he did make up for it by establishing a strategy and communicating it succinctly to his team.

One of my coaching client’s employees recently told me: “It’s difficult to know we’re going…the boss hasn’t been clear in this area.”   I immediately signaled this to my client and we needed to fix this real fast! I helped my client and as a result a strategy was established and communicated to his team.

Isn’t it funny that the simplest things are overlooked yet they can make a significant difference for the success of an organization?

Now tell me: What would your employees tell me if I asked them: ‘So…what’s the strategy?’


Source: Excerpts used from: Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, 2013, Simon & Schuster

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