Friday, May 11, 2007

Product excellence: protect the genius

A former apple executive pays slightly reluctant homage to the gifts of Steve Jobs (emphases mine):
Mobile Opportunity: Apple's industrial design: The value of a decisive bastard with good taste: "

... But the issue's more than just decisiveness vs. bureaucracy. I think Steve Jobs also has very good taste in hardware. I watched the Apple industrial design folks up close for almost ten years, under both Brunner and Jonathan Ive. The groups produced a huge variety of product concepts, ranging from sublime to downright ugly. The bureaucracy pre-Jobs (including, alas, myself) generally picked designs that were nice but prudent -- easy to produce, low risk, not too expensive.

Steve Jobs picks the pretty ones. The ones your average risk-averse business manager would look at and say, "gee, that's nice, but..."

Steve sometimes goes overboard (remember the G4 Cube, a triumph of gorgeous shape over practicality; or the magnesium fetish of the NeXT computer?). And I think his taste in software interfaces isn't as good as his taste in hardware, which is why the current Mac interface is (in my opinion) tarted up like a teenage girl just learning to apply makeup...
Jobs has a very strong aesthetic sense (which is far more than merely "pretty", there's a bit of malice in that word). That's credible, but not useful. CEOs are not selected for that ability. Mace translates this into a very challenging recommendation:
...There is another alternative. Hire someone with good taste, and then back their choices vigorously when everyone else tries to compromise them. Go watch the movie Amadeus. If you can't be a Mozart, be a Salieri -- recognize and use the genius in others...
Ahh, now that's really hard. There are so many reasons this doesn't work. Remember -- Mozart died a miserable death and was buried in a pauper's grave...

This is why great products almost always come from startups, usually reflecting the vision of a handful of creative and committed individuals. The products rarely, if ever, survive long in a public company. (Microsoft Excel being the notable exception.)

Apple's continued ability to create great, innovative products on a semi-regular basis, is almost unprecedented. SONY used to be able to do something similar, but they died 10 years ago. 3M used to have the knack, but they seem to have lost it.

It's extremely hard to keep creative types happy and functional in a corporate setting, reward them for being creative, and keep their vision moving forward. I'd like to read Jobs thoughts on that ...

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