Leadership

What can we learn from Apple?

Challenging long-held assumptions and having the intestinal fortitude to carry the ball across the goal line regardless of how tough it actually is separates the outstanding IT leader from the rest.

Challenging long-held assumptions and having the intestinal fortitude to carry the ball across the goal line regardless of how tough it actually is separates the outstanding IT leader from the rest.

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A record quarter for Apple sent AAPL soaring in after hours trading yesterday. Ever since Steve Jobs returned to Apple, new innovations and record sales have followed. Why? How has Mr. Jobs turned things around at Apple and how can IT leaders learn from the example?

The answer is solution orientation. We hear that buzzword in all facets of corporate life and although I understand it, I always try to find examples to explain it to others. Solution orientation in IT is looking beyond just a single technology. Instead, it focuses on delivering a valuable experience for the end user.

The big mobile phone companies came out with a mobile phone that allowed users to listen to MP3 files on their phone. Earlier, various MP3 players hit the market, all with limited success. The challenge was that there was no easy way to get MP3 files on these devices. The early days of Napster when all the illegal file sharing was going on, you could never count on the quality of the download. Some songs were cut short and bit rates on others were poor. Really, it was a high-end web-based file server with search capabilities and a few other neat features, but the experience was somewhat cludgey. And aside from the fact that it was illegal, sometimes you could find the songs that you wanted if you knew exactly what you were looking for.

CDs were still pretty expensive and you had to buy the whole album, even though you liked only a couple of songs. CD sales were pretty steady and the sales process had not changed for decades.

Mobile phones were developed with a focus on service contracts. Give slightly innovative features and make them as cheaply as possible. The manufacturers were at the mercy of the mobile service providers, at least in the US. This caused innovation to eek along instead of making leaps.

All of these businesses had their set ways--processes that worked for the markets they were in. These companies were really not focused on what the customer actually wanted. Surveys, sales figures, marketing plans all focused on edging out the competition.

Apple saw what customers wanted. They wanted to listen to the music they liked. They wanted to get their music in a way that would not require a degree in computer science (or force them to ask their 14-year-old to get it for them). Simple. But… you had these huge companies that you had to convince to change their ways. That was probably the most difficult part of the iPod, iPhone and iTunes scenario. To the music companies, you will make more money this way. To the mobile service providers, the device actually matters. Stop letting the tail wag the dog.

Sure, Apple could have put out an iPod without iTunes and without negotiating with these stalwarts of industry. But it would have failed. Apple was a hardware company after all. What did it know about telecommunications and music? The technology was the easy part. Pulling together a solution that the customers actually wanted was the tough part.

As with all technology implementations, the tough part is not necessarily the initial technology. The services and business processes that are typically not part of IT’s purview or area of expertise are usually what makes or breaks a successful technology implementation. Challenging long-held assumptions and having the intestinal fortitude to carry the ball across the goal line regardless of how tough it actually is separates the outstanding IT leader from the rest.

10 comments
steve_tatum
steve_tatum

Apple is a beautiful example of the difference between an elegant design and the application of design. Elegant designs are simple, beautiful, and just seem the right way to do something. Steve Jobs and Apple are the masters of the elegant design. There is a very valuable lesson to be learned here and we should all take notes.

dcolbert
dcolbert

Apple's designs are often pretentious and non-intuitive and stubbornly run against the current cultural direction. You can find countless examples beyond the single button mouse where Apple insisted on an "elegant" design long past the point where it was clear that the public direction was headed otherwise. ADB would be one example, Firewire would be another. Sometimes Apple is just so far ahead of the curve, other times, they're completely on the wrong track, but they have a historical tendency to think that if they insist hard and long enough that eventually everyone else will come around to their way of doing things. The fact that Apple enjoys mega sales on a phone with no video, the inability to easily receive pix messages, and the inability to cut and paste between apps is a great example of how Apple's -image-, based on pretention and perception is every bit as important as their "elegant design", if not moreso. Come on, Apple has a "smart-phone" that can't match the standard features of a modern regular cell phone - and they can't make enough of the things. That isn't elegant design, that is selling iceboxes to Eskimos.

edward.arnold
edward.arnold

There are few things sadder than somebody whose mind is so closed that they cannot see the obvious: Apple is a success not just because of elegant design or Steve Jobs' ego, but because they make products that the public wants to buy. "The economy is in the tank, so a luxury-market company like Apple must die!" So, Apple has a record quarter while the rest of the tech industry, who respond by making everything cheaper, have huge losses. The people who have money to spend, which means most of us, despite the financial markets woes, are going to continue spending discretionary income on what they want.

dcolbert
dcolbert

I wanted to disagree with this, but I am currently writing an essay/blog post that covers the same basic concepts. In my case, my first exposure to digital music was a Purple Haze demo on the Amiga around 1987. It was the "full" song, achieved by looping a sample of the main riff the appropriate number of times, then playing the bridge, then playing the main riff loop. There were no vocals. It is probably the first example of widespread digitial distribution of RIAA owned material. When I first heard this demo, I immediately saw the potential. Songs as digital files would revolutionize the music industry. If you miss anything in this article, it is that Apple was also willing to take ownership and *lead* the digital music revolution. The other companies that entered the fray early on delivered the technology, but not the content delivery. They saw themselves only as hardware companies. In the early days of the Mp3 revolution, most people were getting their tunes from Usenet. A 4gb hard drive that was the standard drive of the day wasn't well suited to holding many MP3s in addition to your other data, so most Mp3 collections of any size were stored on writable CDs. DIY hackers were rigging laptops in their trunks spliced into their car stereo decks. This is probably around 1994, 1995. One of the first decks to market with MP3 capabilities was a Kenwood deck that cost well over $1000 and could play MP3 disks. This was around 2003. The Creative Nomad Jukebox Zen was the big personal Mp3 player (a google search returned a C-net review dated 2003). iPod was already on the market, but the widespread adoption of digital format music outside of the ubernerd crowd was just gaining steam. The music industry was already starting to panic and begining to attempt to exert complete control over content delivery and distribution. At this point, the hardware vendors, the music industry, the recording artists, had all dropped the ball. They had let a golden opportunity pass them by (largely due to fear and greed). Apple had begun a business model that would ultimately see them redefined as the Tower Records of the 21st century. But in 2003, iTunes was seen as a value add to encourage sales of iPod. Today, iTunes is arguably a more important part of the Apple business model *than* the iPod. Apple went for a has-been PC maker likely to become a historic footnote in the evolution of the personal computer, like Atari or Commodore, to being one of the most influential voices in the music industry, in just around 10 years. And you're right, they focus on digital convergence of consumer electronics and how to deliver those devices in a way that consumers will embrace. That is the key to their model. "Solutions orientation". But the trick is, that if no "solution" exists, they'll take ownership, take the lead, and CREATE the solution. The solution was always there - and the REASONS for the solution are exactly what you said. Anyone who had spent hours searching for a track, downloaded it, and found it to end half way through the song, or be a low quality rip, or be a 2 minute loop of the chorus, understands the value in being able to pay a marginal fee to download the track from a legitimate site. That was true in 1994, in 2003 and is still true today - which is one reason that DRM is such a farce. If you have a high quality product with a value add, the people who WOULD buy, will. It doesn't matter WHAT you do otherwise, the people who won't buy, won't - but many of them WILL steal, regardless of what you do to "protect" your content. If saner heads had prevailed at the various recording labels in 1994, the recording industry might not have to deal with Apple dictating conditions to them today (something that must be relatively humiliating for the executives of the recording industry). Instead, their attempts to maintain control of a dying consumer model gave a PC company the power to dictate terms and conditions to their entire industry in the span of a single decade. Apple's lessons aren't just for IT, they're for any business, and for life itself. Be innovative, take risks, expand your horizons, and find where solutions are in demand and provide them. Regardless of what one thinks of Apple or their products or their fanbase, as a company, their current industry success is a blueprint that is not difficult to emulate. Now let's sit back and watch the MPAA make all the same mistakes, and take bets on who will emerge as the dominant force in that industry once the current Barons of this business nearly burn it to the ground through greed and fear of losing control.

bsauer
bsauer

I was working in the printing industry at the time that Steve Jobs returned to Apple. Everyone credits his coming back for saving Apple however this is not entirely correct. In the pre-press area of a printing shop in those days the MAC was the only pc used to get jobs ready for printing. We were sent notification from Apple support for the MACs would be ending due to Apple closing it's doors. In steps Microsoft and floats a loan to Apple to enable it to stay in business. Again we received notification from Apple that this had taken place and support would continue uninterrupted. At the time there was no viable option in the pc world, till about two years later, that could handle graphics work like the MACs. Shortly after this Steve Jobs returned to Apple. This loan coupled with Steve Jobs return is what enabled Apple to regain it's footing.

JamesRL
JamesRL

Whether its an OS or a music player or a phone, Apple focuses on bringing technology down to a level where "anyone" can use it. Ease of use, good looking designs and smart marketing are all part of the equation. They aren't afraid to take chances - look at the Newton, a great design but the hadnwriting technology wasn't quite ready and they became the butt of jokes. But another less flattering lesson - don't build a cult around the leader - or when he gets sick, your shares will tank. Microsoft managed to build up Ballmer so that when Gates wanted to step back, there was no impact. Jobs has failed to do the same, and that doesn't speak well for the company. James

dcolbert
dcolbert

Jobs is a narcissist and a megalomaniac, I think this is well documented. It depends on how you build your cult, though. Intel is an example where they've crafted and cultivated a cult around their leaders that lends them a mythical status. The presense of Moore and Grove (moreso than Noyce, for example) are critical to Intel's culture and self-image, which has a tremendous impact on the public perception of the company. Noyce is protrayed as a fallen and sorely missed founding father of the organization, he beomes almost a martyr. By doing this, the character of the founding fathers remains a pervasive force in the company, regardless of the current leadership. It was implicit that Intel was not Craigh Barrett's company, it was not Otellini's company - the leadership and ideals of Intel are the "eternal ideals and leadership of Andy Grove", more or less. And the public, including those who rate the value of the company, seem to reflect that they buy this. It helps that Andy Grove is still alive, and still high profile, and that Moore's law is such an entrenched part of the industry. But if you can turn your company's leader into a "spiritual figurehead of the fatherland", his aura can transcend the actual person and become an intrinsic part of the company. Another example of this would be Walt Disney's lasting legacy as part of Disney Corporation's corporate image. Jobs problem is that the thinks HE is bigger/more important than his persona.

Jay Rollins
Jay Rollins

I think the public has built a cult around Jobs because he is one of the few that can pull difficult things off like this. Everyone can do it if they pursue the end goal with passion, but few do and that is why Jobs is so important to Apple.

dcolbert
dcolbert

See: "Don Juan as the functional psychopath". By Gordon Banks You can Google it. If I put a link, someone will flag this spam, no doubt.

johnm41
johnm41

What I like about Apple is the seamlessness of their products so that it does seem to the end user that they have tried to think of everything. What is not so likeable is the perception of arrogance in some of their dealings with us - in their secrecy, relative high prices, and general smugness! However, from what the article says, maybe Apple needs these characteristics to successfully make these better products. For instance, Apple's adherence to DRM may well have been the unavoidable "quid pro quo" to get the music industry to allow iTunes. Maybe a leader like Steve Jobs needs to be somewhat arrogant and self-confident in order to get his message across, especially if that message is initially counter-intuitive ("put yourself in the customer's shoes!") to one's audience. Perhaps in these tough times we could apply the Apple business-style to other areas of life - for example, imagine buying an Apple hybrid car that comes complete with mass transit journey credits for your local area, with a bike-rack and bicycles for short journeys, and pre-negotiated parking permits for the life of the vehicle! Customers would then be buying a transport ?solution? rather than a transport device, in which they achieve their objective (?Get from A to B?) in a manner that is both efficient and sympathetic to the environment. However, I?m sure that it would take an ego as big as Steve Jobs? to put together such a package and to drive it through to success ? in the Apple way!

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