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Pros and Cons to the Steve Jobs School of Project Management

Whether you believe he was a genius or a lunatic, there’s no denying that Steve Jobs was an innovator. His ideas molded the way that present and future generations interact of personal computers, telephones and music.

However, behind the cutting-edge products and the grandiose presentations, Steve Jobs was also an extremely polarizing boss. Not long after he started Apple with Steve Wozniak in 1976, it became crystal clear to would-be stakeholders that Jobs could be a loose cannon to work in a business setting. So much so, in fact, that Mike Markkula, Apple’s first major investor and long-time chairman, brought on Mike Scott as president of the company in 1977 essentially to babysit manage Jobs and his emotional outbursts.

Despite his eccentricity, some people were extremely motivated by Jobs’ blunt critiques, desire for perfection and impossibly strong will – famously known as his reality distortion field.

How about you? Would you have been able to endure and thrive under Jobs’ tirades, or would you have been the first one to get up and walk out as soon as the boss started crying in a meeting? Let’s examine some of the pros and cons of the Steve Jobs’ school of project management. You can decide which side of the line you would have been on if you had come across Steve Jobs in the early years of Apple.

Never be Satisfied (Reality Distortion Field)

Pros:

Anything worth doing is worth doing right. Right?

Without this trait, Jobs may have been perfectly content to work on the Apple II with Woz throughout the 80s. He would have been fine letting Jef Raskin lead the Mac team and build a cheap product with a 5-inch screen and an underpowered microprocessor. He may have been content to stick to the personal computer industry, instead of pursuing animated films, telephony and the music industry.

Luckily for those who worked with him, Steve was never able to accept mediocrity, which is where his reality distortion field took effect. Even when team members thought they had created the perfect tool or designed an amazing application, Jobs would walk into the room and tear it to shreds. The responsible team member would then go back to fix what Jobs disliked and find a few other minor improvements in the process. Then, again, Jobs would call it shit and walk away, and once again his colleague would find something to improve. By bending to Jobs’ will, members of the Mac team were able to take something they initially thought was great and improve it half a dozen times. It was his unbending will that drove everyone on his team to create products that were far better than they would have otherwise believed was possible.

“He reminded me of Rasputin. He laser-beamed in on you and didn’t blink. It didn’t matter if he was serving purple Kool-Aid. You drank it. It was a self-fulfilling distortion. You did the impossible because you didn’t realize it was impossible.” – Debi Coleman, Mac team member.

Cons:

Despite this genius, Jobs was often overly argumentative, even when a colleague had created a product to the best of their ability. His persistent negativity forced a lot of team members to despise him, which does not create a truly productive work environment. No matter who you are, being consistently told that your first four attempts weren’t good enough will have a negative impact on your psyche. It’s one thing to find imperfections in sloppy work, it’s an entirely different animal when – as Jobs did – you see defects where there aren’t any. At some point, for the good of the team, a project manager has to walk into a room and agree that the product looks great. If you worked for Jobs, that is something you likely never experienced.

“He had these huge expectations, and if people didn’t deliver he couldn’t stand it. He couldn’t control himself,” explained Ann Bowers, who joined Apple in 1980, in Jobs’ biography. “I could understand why Steve would get upset, and he usually was right, but it had a hurtful effect. It created a fear factor.”

Motivating is one thing. Fear mongering is a completely different monster.

Make it Personal and Show Emotion

Pros:

What better way to motivate someone than to call them out and challenge them on a personal level? This is a tactic Jobs took advantage of time and time again. Usually, his colleagues stepped up to the challenge and achieved what was asked of them simply because they would personally responsible if it wasn’t done correctly.

It wasn’t just his colleagues that Jobs got personal with – he also made it personal with competitors. While he had a love-hate relationship with Microsoft, what people remember most were his personal attacks against Bill Gates. And how about the full-page ad that Apple took out welcoming IBM to the PC industry?

According to Emotion in the Workplace: A Reappraisal, a study done by Blake E. Ashforth and Ronald H Humphrey in 1995:

The great potential for emotion to revitalize our perspectives on motivation has only begun to be tapped. Two recent examples will suffice. Kahn suggests that the greater the investment of oneself in work, the greater one’s motivation. Following Kelman, the lowest investment is solely physical… the next level is cognitive… and the highest level is emotional, typified by the individual who forgets to have dinner and works late into the night, lost in the thrill of her work. Individuals experiencing high ‘personal engagement’ and ‘flow’ become physically, cognitively, and emotionally immersed in the experience of an activity, in pursuit of a goal.

In other words, whether it’s a direct challenge to teammates or a personal attack toward a competitor, bringing emotion into the professional realm can ignite an amazing work ethic and give a team something to rally around.

Cons:

High emotions and individual attacks don’t always bode well in the professional world. While some people thrive on the challenges, others resent them and would prefer to have a levelheaded boss that won’t throw a fit in the middle of a meeting.

With Jobs, you were either a “genius” or a “shithead who sucks.” As good as it would feel to be on the genius side of the line, it would be equally crushing to be on the latter end. What benefit can come from making one of your best developers, testers or designers revile you on a personal level? Probably nothing.

Details, Details, Details

 Pros:

It’s hard to argue against attention-to-detail at any level. As a developer, attention to detail may help you catch a colleague’s crippling bug. As a tester, it may be the one thing that saves your company’s app from crashing at the first sign of a traffic spike. But it’s the project manager that has to set the tone when it comes to creating an atmosphere that does not accept defects.

I would argue that this was Jobs’ trademark. The guy just could not accept even the smallest imperfection in any product – whether it was an asymmetrical board or the askew tiles in the men’s room of the NeXT office. That kind of tone is contagious and when it is implemented so strictly into a project, everyone else on the team follows suit. And when this strict code of quality is removed from a company – well, you get Apple Maps.

Cons:

As with most things, Jobs took details to an extreme. Yes, attention to detail is great, but it’s hardly worth it at this point to spend days adjusting the typeface of your app or the precise curvature of the borders on your website. Time is money, and most companies don’t have the currency to waste on such minor details. Yes, Jobs’ hyper-critical attention-to-detail probably resulted in boosted sales of Apple products, but it was also very costly for the company as a whole. He had the financial flexibility to pull this off – the majority of project managers don’t.

Get Creative

 Pros:

Jobs’ claim to fame was his ability to combine the beauty of the arts with the wonders of technology. His goal was to make new, complex products innately easy for people to understand – look no further than the metaphor of the desktop or the innovation of the iPod. He thought outside the box, both with his product ideas and with his style of motivating teammates.

Jobs always blazed his own path, and that compelled his team to follow him. The Mac team was inspired to work 90 hours a week because he challenged them creatively. They were excited to be working on something that no one else had seen before. If a manager is afraid to be creative or is hesitant to blaze their own trail, teams can lose interest all together.

Cons:

Trail blazing is absolutely noble, but it’s also dangerous.

If you don’t have the full trust of your co-workers or investors, you may end up walking off a cliff all by yourself. This is even more likely to happen when you combine excessive creativity with the rest of the traits mentioned above.Yes, the first Macintosh had some extremely creative (albeit stolen) features, and yes, NeXT was an extremely creative company at its core, but neither of these projects were extremely financially successful – in part because of the amount of money Jobs spent on experimenting with his creative ideas. Unless you have the capital of Ross Perot backing you, you might want to leave some of the creative gambles to someone else.

What do you think? Was Jobs a nothing more than a manic marketer who took credit for other people’s work, or was he a passionate leader who would have driven you beyond your own limitations? 

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Comments

  1. Kevin Peck says:

    Probably would have driven me beyond my limits for a few months then totally burnt me out. He just sounded too extreme. If he would have offered up some praise from time to time that would have helped. Constant fear is just not the way I work. Massively long hours, because he worked that way, does not help either.

    It sounded like his way or the highway and not all people work his way. Striving for perfection is one thing. Always being annoyed because you don’t obtain it is another. I would have hated to be a contractor working on building a house for him.

    He wanted to be above it all. He parked in handicapped spaces because he had the money to pay the fines. He did not care he was depriving the spot from a person it was designed to assist. To me that is just being a scumbag. Doubt he had to pay many fines on Apple campus. They knew it was his car due to the temp tags. He was above the laws of others but you best not break his laws.

    Genius? Probably. He knew what he wanted and how to get there. Is Apple hurting without him? I feel they are. Excellent manager? I say no. A manager I would want to work under? No. Could they have done just as well without his management style? Most likely and might have even been a bit better as I am sure some strong people were chased away.

    • Baustin213 says:

      Some people actually were able to stand up to him. They actually gave out an award in the early years of Apple to whomever stood up to him most each year. He loved it and respected people who could stand up to him and prove to him that they solved a problem in the best way possible.

      As tough as he may have been to get along with, he got results. His employees worked 90-hour work weeks for him and ended up creating better products than they would have if he weren’t on their backs.

      That said, he may have been more effective as a manager had he been able to control his outbursts.

      Woz is quoted in Jobs’ biography as saying that, while Jobs’ managerial style was more effective than his own, the most productive style would have been a balance of each of their traits. I absolutely believe that is true.

    • Baustin213 says:

      It was bugging me, so I had to go back and find the quote in my copy of the book:

      “Steve’s contributions could have been made without so many stories about him terrorizing folks,” Wozniak said. “I like being more patient and not having so many conflicts. I think a company can be a good family. If the Macintosh project had been run my way, things probably would have been a mess. But I think if it had been a mix of both our styles, it would have been better than just the way Steve did it.”

  2. Developer Dude says:

    Without having met him, much less never having worked for him or experienced his “tirades”, I cannot definitively say for sure. I myself do not like mediocrity, much less incompetence, but there is a balance between “good enough” and “perfect” – somewhere in between you need to say something is “acceptable” and move on. I doubt that Jobs himself was perfect in everything he did (especially in his personal relationships with those who worked with him, or even his own family and friends) – so people in glass houses and all that jazz.

    To answer the question – I would have probably eventually walked away from working for or with him – life is too short to deal with such people. There have been a number of times where I regret not walking away from difficult people earlier than I have.

    YMMV.

    • Baustin213 says:

      I think I agree with you. Like you said, it’s hard to tell unless you’ve experienced it first-hand, but I think I would personally waver back and forth between highly-motivated and highly-irritated until I eventually moved on to something more balanced.

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