I’m all stirred up from reading Walter Isaacson’s richly reported biography of Steve Jobs— half in the large, 650-page book and half in my iPod, downloaded to the Kindle app. (I’m VERY curious about the rise of e-books and learn by doing).
Steve Jobs is the first biography of this caliber where I have some ground truth. I’ve lived the Apple revolution. I consulted to the company all during the Scully years. I count Alan Kay, the original conceiver of the “Dynabook” when he was at Xerox as a friend and colleague. I worked closely with Gil Amelio at National Semiconductor. I think I’ve owned, used, and depended on just about every product they’ve made since the Mac SE. In fact I created my own book, Visual Meetings, on the Mac and opened with a chapter about how we used visualization to guide the Leadership Expedition we conducted for all of Apple’s top management during the 1980s. Apple’s example has shaped our visual practice at The Grove. The idea of doing for group process what Apple did for computing—i.e. provide a graphical user interface—has been a guiding vision. So I’ve had a VERY interesting time following this story.
I no sooner finished than I came across a link to an article in Forbes magazine called "For a Preview of the iPad3-Watch this 23 Year-oldApple Video" about a classic video created at Apple during the 1980’s by John Scully and his higher education marketing team called “The Knowledge Navigator.” It was created for a presentation he gave at EduCom about Apple’s product vision in 1987, a couple of years after Steve was fired and left to start NeXT. Here’s a screen grab of the beginning.
Like many generalizations, it has large elements of truth, but it doesn’t provide a full picture. Isaacson seems more interested in the person than the context in this story about Steve, and has produced a wonderfully rich report of a real business genius. But I’m interested in back stories and unstated truths as much as popular myths so I found Mui’s article fascinating. I’ve long believed that Scully’s era actually laid a foundation in more mature business practices that provided a basis for Job’s triumphant return, even as it presided over the eventual loss of their lead position to Microsoft, Dell, HP and other players in the personal computer industry.
Mui is the managing director of the Devil’s Advocate Group, a consultancy that helps business leaders design and stress test their innovation strategies and also the coauthor of Unleashing the Killer App: Digital Strategies for Market Dominance (Harvard Business School Press, 1998). He includes BOTH the original Knowledge Navigator Video and a follow up and little viewed video about the Knowledge Navigator Implications that includes Alan Kay, Steve Wozniak, and others projecting the future of computing. His point is that they, in truth, laid out the template for the iPad that Steve and now Apple is following, and prefigures what will come on the iPad3. I’ll let you have the fun of agreeing or disagreeing with Mui and am not going to summarize his article here, but strongly advise you watch the two video that are embedded and see what you think! I do want to share some reflections that I had. (CLICK THEM TO WATCH)
Malcolm Gladwell wrote an excellent review of Isaacson’s book in a New Yorker article on November 14, 2011 called “The Tweaker” that helped put Isaacson’s book in some perspective. Gladwell compares Jobs to the great English engineers and designers who continuously perfected known ideas like the cotton gins until they truly worked. These tweakers were not the inventors, but as important to progress and results during the industrial revolution as the originators of the ideas.
It’s clear from the video’s in Mui’s article that much of the “inventing” of the iPad was rooted in the work of Alan Kay and the imagineering of the wonderful higher education marketing group headed by Bud Colligan, the leader the Knowledge Navigator project as Director of Higher Education Marketing at Apple from 1985 – 1988. It’s also clear from my own experience with the iPad that the iPad2 is a wonderful tweak of the iPad1 which was a tweak on this original Knowledge Navigator idea. Apple was roundly criticized when the initial iPad came out for moving Apple’s focus to a more consumption oriented functionality rather than the interactive creation platform its computer tools made possible. I myself realized we were looking at a crude version of what we would see in later version of this product over the years. As great as the early Mac’s were at showing what was possible, they were really protypes and only became truly useful to designers like myself in the 1990s, after MANY tweaks. Isaacson writes that Jobs himself was upset by the criticism of the iPad and supported moving the iPad2 to being more of a creation platform, with new versions of iMovie, cameras and the like. I’m sure the iPad3 promises to take yet more leaps, if Apple follows its recent history.
I think Gladwell misses something that Mui doesn’t point out so clearly either—that Steve wasn’t the only tweaker. Apple and Pixar quality innovations are collective, not individual. Individuals in our society often get and seek credit, but it is the combined intelligence that is, in fact, doing the tweaking. What I loved about Isaacson’s book is illustrating how many times Jobs did not know what he was doing, or had the wrong idea and had to be argued down, and how many people were involved every step of the way. What Jobs did have was an ability to keep everyone focused on what they were tweaking for—simplicity, integration, and quality infused throughout—from marketing, to packaging, to the feel of the glass as you swiped them on.
My teacher, Arthur M. Young, inventor of the Bell Helicopter, told many stories about how important group debriefs were after ever crash of their big models during the development phase of the helicopter, after it was invented in model form. Even the clean-up boys should be involved, Young believed, because he never knew where the insight for the important improvements would come from. If you read the comments attached to Mui’s article, there is a long one by Bud Colligan. It’s the story of a group process-and of collective intelligence.
Coincident with reading Mui, I read another article by Bill McKibben in Orion called “The Era of Small and Many, reversing the trend of generations” . McKibben argues that hopefully we are moving from a culture of “the few and the big” to one of “the small and the many.” He recounts the fact that for the first time in generations the number of farms is back to increasing. He describes the new “distributed energy” movement. And he looks at Facebook and social networking as examples.
If I actually look at how the Apple tools that I use work, I’m relying on Microsoft Office 2011 for word processing and e-mail. I’m using Adobe’s Illustrator, Photoshop, and InDesign CS5 for my book making. And I’m using Safari and my MacBook Pro for the actually writing and designing and the iPad for reading and note taking in meetings. Wacom makes the tablets. If I listed all the people who actually contributed important tweaks to all these tools it would outstrip the credits on any current film. Jobs success was insisting on a few key principles, and having the ability to literally bully an entire workforce to deliver on them—such as having everything work together in a user friendly way. Thank you Steve. But let’s keep in mind that it was the many that made this actually happen, and that perhaps it can be accomplished without the bullying. I hope and pray that the Apple culture moves beyond the myth of the brilliant individual to lionizing the incredible power of the small and many who choose to work toward a common goal.
It’s easy to overfocus on the big and the few in our culture. There are many interested in NOT having the small and many be empowered. But I share McKibbon’s sentiments as he ends his article. “It’s possible they (the big and few) can delay the transition too long—the physics and chemistry of climate change, for instance, demand quicker change than many of our systems can easily manage. But all the money in the world can’t, in the end, hold back history. It’s heading toward something different and new and interesting. Or many many somethings, each of them small and beautiful.”
Steve argued for simplicity, integration, and infusion of Apple’s quality in every detail of their products, marketing, and retail experience. And he was able to inspire an army of “tweakers” to deliver on that ideal. Let’s tweak on Jobs, and figure out how we, the many, can do this to some of the ill designed features of our current society!