Saturday, October 8, 2011

Steve Jobs And Management By Meaning

Steve Jobs has always been considered an anomaly in management; his leadership style was something to admire or to criticize, but definitely not to replicate. He did not fit into the frameworks of business textbooks: there was orthodox management, and then there was Steve Jobs.

The reason why institutional management theories have always looked at his style as an exception is that he was navigating a territory that is often obscure to management: the creation of meaning, both for customers and employees.

He put people at the center. Which does not imply that he gave users what they wanted, nor that he created a flat playful organization where ideas flew from the bottom up. Apple's approach to innovation is definitely not user-driven: it does not listen to users, but makes proposals to them. And narrations on Jobs's leadership style tells of a vertical, top-down approach, often harsh. At new product launches, he, not the team, was the protagonist.

"Managing by meaning" is recognizing that people are human: they have rational, cultural, and emotional dimensions, and they appreciate the person who creates a meaning for them to embrace. We know customers do not buy Apple's product simply because of utility or functionality; people are even prone to forgive some of Apple's technical limitations in exchange for great design — and identity. For Jobs, design was not only beauty, but creating new meanings for users.

Jobs was constantly driven by the search for products that made more sense to people. And Apple has been a champion in creating new product meanings: the iMac G3, released in 1998, with his colorful translucent materials inspired by modern households products, changed the meaning of computers from office objects to home devices; the iPod plus the iTunes application and store created a new meaning in the world of music — accessibility — by making it easier to search, discover, buy, listen to, and organize music wherever a customer was; the iPhone turned the meaning of smart phones from objects for business to objects of social entertainment. These products where not necessarily best in class in terms of performance, but they were more meaningful to users.

Jobs also offered meaning to his employees. It is known that Apple's employees worked hard on visionary projects, striving to meet targets and to satisfy their leader's maniacal attention to detail. Jobs infused them with a sense of mission. Apple had to leave a mark in the world of computing, improve people's lives, be bold and, of course, "think different."

Experts and academics in business schools have often dismissed this approach as the outcome of the unique personality of Steve Jobs. A kind of "guru process," as a colleague once told me. Nothing to be considered as a role model. The reason is that institutional management is rooted into analytics, engineering, and the social sciences. Jobs had no disdain for these, but meaning is connected to other, more slippery territories: culture and the humanities, which unfortunately business schools hardly master. During an interview, Jobs stated that "The only problem with Microsoft is that they absolutely just have no taste. I mean that in the big way. [...] They don't bring much culture into their product. Proportionally spaced fonts come from typesetting and beautiful books." And in 2010, during his keynote for the launch of the iPad, he said, "The reason we've been able to create products like this is because we've tried to be at the intersection of technology and liberal arts."

Institutional management is scared by culture and the humanities. They are not measurable and cannot be codified in processes. They depend on the person. What Jobs taught us is that managers are people before being managers. They have a personal vision of the world, painstakingly developed through years of research and exploration in life. Why should manager forget about culture? No method, tools and process can give you the capability to create meaning, to create visions. Only your personal culture, that no one can imitate, can.

Jobs showed that business and culture are not in contradiction, but rather they sustain each other. Isn't it time to consider this as a model instead of an anomaly? Can't Jobs become institutional and "management by meaning" become a core chapter in the future textbooks of management?

Thanks to Roberto Verganti / Blog HBR / Harvard Business School Publishing
http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2011/10/steve_jobs_and_management_by_m.html?referral=00563&cm_mmc=email-_-newsletter-_-daily_alert-_-alert_date&utm_source=newsletter_daily_alert&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=alert_date

 

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