Jobs Story

[Cross-posted, with some changes, from my other blog.

Much of the media blitz surrounding the death of Steve Jobs focused not only on amazing Apple products (AAP) that he shepherded to the market, and not only on what an inspirational, visionary leader he became, but also on How Can We Find More People Like Steve?

Carl Kurlander's piece is representative of this view:  What Pittsburgh needs is more outliers willing to be different!  We just have to find them.

Steve Jobs, visionary leader that he was, thought about this problem. It’s an innovation problem, and more or less like the innovation problems that IP systems wrestle with all the time. Once we innovate, how do we ensure that the innovation thrives, and takes hold, and propagates (or is propagated) for the benefit of different communities and future generations? Jobs seems to have convinced himself that the way to do this was not just by ensuring the survival of Apple itself, or Pixar. The key was more Steves, or simulcra of Steve.

“More Steves” suggests that more Steves could be made, not just found. Is that true? Can Steve-like leadership (vision, innovation, iconoclasm, persistence) be taught — and if it can be taught, can it be learned?  Is the problem not "finding Steve" but "teaching Steve"?  Or at least a good bit of the first, given that the second is really, really hard?

Apple has built Apple University on the premise that the answers are “yes.” The existence of Apple U. has been openly talked about for a while, but the program of Apple U. has not been clear. Jobs’s death and that LA Times story in the link bring it out into the open for the first time that I’ve seen. For several years, the Apple U. initiative has been led by former Yale School of Management dean Joel Podolney. Back in 2006, I wrote here about Podolney’s record at Yale, which was, in a way that must have appealed to Steve Jobs, transformative.

Analysts say Jobs drew inspiration for the university from Bill Hewlett and David Packard, whose greatest creation was not the pocket calculator or the minicomputer, but Hewlett-Packard itself. Hewlett and Packard famously set out their company’s core values in “The HP Way.”

With Apple University, Jobs was trying to achieve something similar, people familiar with the project say. He identified tenets that he believes unleash innovation and sustain success at Apple — accountability, attention to detail, perfectionism, simplicity, secrecy. And he oversaw the creation of university-caliber courses that demonstrate how those principles translate into business strategies and operating practices.

The idea of building an ivory tower on a corporate campus goes back decades with the best-known — and oldest — run by General Electric. Corporate universities fell out of favor in the 1990s, considered too expensive, bureaucratic and out of touch with the companies they were supposed to serve. Even Apple shut down its corporate university.

But Jobs’ interest in a corporate university never wavered, former employees say. For years he pressed for a way to study the success of Apple’s executive team as well as Apple’s culture and history. His model was Pixar. The animation studio that Jobs sold to Disney for $7.5 billion in 2006 runs Pixar University, a professional development program that offers courses in fine arts and filmmaking as well as leadership and management to steep employees in the company’s culture, history and values as well as its craft.
The HP Way could become the Apple Way. Or (a la Pixar) Jobs Story. When I was practicing law in Palo Alto years ago, I was fortunate enough to meet and briefly to work with some senior HP executives. I heard a lot about the HP Way, and I saw some of it in action. In its day and in its way, the HP Way was incredibly impressive – and effective. It preached collaboration, respect, achievement, and integrity. Not quite the set of values reported above with respect to Apple, and not quite the set of values associated with Steve Jobs in the many public accounts of his life and behavior. But times have changed.

[Updated (Oct. 11 2011): Kieran Healy has related thoughts in this post, A Sociology of Steve Jobs.]

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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at]gmail.com. Mike also blogs at Madisonian.net, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

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