Jul 29, 2014

Steve Jobs and Design Thinking: Making America Competitive Again

How Steve Jobs raised the bar for every American CEO.

Steve Jobs and Design Thinking: Making America Competitive Again Steve Jobs and Design Thinking: Making America Competitive Again


By Bill Burnett and Andy Butler

The passing of Steve Jobs has generated a moment of introspection in our country that we find fascinating.  Many who knew him well have written much deserved tributes to the man, others who had nothing to do with Apple or the tech industry have turned Jobs into a celebrity.  We, like others, hold his business acumen and design judgment in high esteem, but this is not another tribute piece.  Neither of us ever worked directly for Steve; Bill’ seven years at Apple were during the non-Steve years and Apple has never been a client of our consultancy, so we cannot comment on Mr. Jobs as an individual.  But we would like to call attention to the lessons that can be derived from Steve’s leadership of Apple and reframe them as a call to action to American businesses everywhere.

The famous “insanely great” hurdle Steve Jobs set for Apple, and by default the hurdle he has set for all other CEOs, seems insanely high to everyone who looks at Apple and Steve’s accomplishments. But we who teach design or sell innovation know that what Steve Jobs created at Apple is not “black magic “ or the product of a cult of personality. The design and innovation culture that Steve Jobs created at Apple is a powerful but straightforward approach to innovation – available to any CEO with the focus and energy to make it happen.

At Stanford we call this culture “design thinking” and its elements are: seek inspiration from the best people, test everything again and again and never accept less than the best, focus on the user’s experience, fail early/fail often but learn aggressively from those experiences, cannibalize your own products before your competitors do, be bold in your conceptualization but demanding in your execution, and work with teams that are as dedicated as you are.  First and foremost, always, always incorporate elements of surprise and delight in your designs.

These ideas are not unique to Steve Jobs; you will find them in the work of Dieter Rams at Braun, Richard Branson at Virgin, and in any company where a design culture exists and leaders demand the best.

But one element of Apple’s success and Steve’s focus deserves mention because it is truly rare in today’s corporations.  Steve was willing to to make long-term, risky, and significant investments. Few have that orientation.

Imagine for a second being the CEO who is advocating a $150M three-year investment that would assign 200 of your top engineers to an effort to launch a product in an overcrowded highly competitive market controlled by third party carriers who change hardware suppliers like an athlete changes his socks. The outcome is uncertain but you believe it is your obligation as the CEO to propose these kinds of industry changing category re-defining projects.

How many of you, if you were on the Board of Directors, could honestly say that you’d have the courage to green light such an investment?  And how many CEO’s would have the courage to make such proposals to their Boards? You can count the Steve Jobs of the world one hand, and because of that we have the iPhone.

And therein lies the problem: America has become a country where the fast-buck mentality rules. You see it in Wall Street; where we allow split-second trading by computers that extract profits from the market without creating value. You see it in corporate America; where recently the Boards of Yahoo and HP, seeking to please the markets, fired CEOs without a succession plan or strategy in place, You see it in the recent real-estate collapse where middle America homeowners, emulating Wall Street traders, forgot that owning is an obligation and instead flipped houses chasing quick profits.  And sadly, you see it when the unemployed spend their last dollars buying lottery tickets.  And it is destroying us.

But the great thing about America is its ability to have an honest public discourse and and then effect change. We did it when Steve Jobs was growing up, by confronting our civil rights issues and making significant legal and cultural changes for the betterment of the country.  We did it in the ‘80’s when, faced with superior Japanese products and technology, we retooled and ended up dominating the computer and software industries. And for all of our current economic problems it is still reassuring to remember that Steve Jobs is a uniquely American product.

Where else in the world could the 21 year old Steve Jobs, the college drop-out, the phone hacker, and the anti-establishment rebel, have had the career and influence he had? Certainly not in Europe or Asia, where degrees and class still determine your fate and no one in the moneyed class would have even talked to this scruffy-looking young man.

They say that imitation is the greatest compliment one can pay to a creative genius. Lets pay this compliment to Steve Jobs by copying these principals of his success.  You can create insanely great companies by creating design cultures that value long-term innovation and have the courage to make long-term investments.  Nothing magic in this formula – except the courage and focus it takes to make it work.  OK, we guess that does make this another tribute piece to a brave and passionate man who died way to young. Steve Jobs, we salute you.

Bill Burnett is a former Apple employee and Consulting Assistant Professor and Executive Director of the Design Program at Stanford. Andy Butler is CEO and Founder of D2M-Inc., a Silicon Valley Innovation and Product Development Company.

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