Steve Jobs: Contrarian

Much praise has been lavished — and deservedly so — on the life and legacy of Steve Jobs in the days following his untimely demise at the age of 56. Although comparisons to historic figures like Thomas Edison and Henry Ford may be a bit strained, we can all certainly agree that Jobs’ emphasis on product design and quality helped transform the consumer technology industry.

Absent from the initial wave of obituaries, though, was a focus on the contrarian approach that Jobs repeatedly employed throughout his storied career. Time and again, Job made decisions that left the pundits scratching their heads in confusion, decisions that nevertheless led to eventual success.

Some of those decisions represented conscious choices to repudiate fundamental principles of modern business theory. Others represented the implementation of highly risky tactics that are seldom successful in the contemporary economy, but that Jobs nevertheless managed to implement effectively.

Repudiating The Academics

Several years ago, Apple hired Dean Joel Podolny away from the Yale School of Management to manage Apple University, the firm’s internal training function. Dean Podolny was also assigned the task of creating a series of written case studies, for use in Apple’s training programs, that captured the essential principles and theories that Jobs employed during his tenure.

The cases themselves might be difficult to integrate into a traditional university curriculum, given Apple’s propensity to repudiate various fundamental tenets of traditional MBA lesson plans. Consider the principle of product obsolescence, for instance; firms are generally advised to extend the life cycles of their products, and not to consciously speed their obsolescence.

But Jobs continually developed new products that cannibalized existing Apple lines. Sales of iPod music players, for example, plummeted once Apple incorporated their core functions into the iPhone. And the iPad didn’t simply take business away from other laptop and netbook computer manufacturers; it apparently drained sales from the MacBook line as well.

Some professors might protest that Apple was simply combining complementary functions in new packages, in the manner that consumer product manufacturers sell soap and shampoo in toiletry travel packages, or spoons and forks in cutlery sets. But at the time that Apple combined its mobile music player with its new telephone, for instance, the pair of functions resided in entirely different industries.

Sony had not originally contemplated the placement of a telephone in its Walkman; likewise, Motorola had never attempted to play music through its Razr. The integration of music by the iPhone, and its resulting cannibalization of the iPod line, was thus a truly groundbreaking decision.

Rolling The Dice

Other decisions authorized by Jobs were not necessarily repudiations of classic business theories per se, and yet they represented highly uncertain “rolls of the dice” that paid off for Apple. Indeed, they were reflections of a corporate culture that embraced entrepreneurial risk-taking at the highest level.

Apple’s decision to rehire Jobs in 1996 after firing him in 1985, for example, represented an astonishing about-face by the firm’s Board of Directors. Although it is not unprecedented for corporate founders to return to the helms of their organizations after having retired or resigned to pursue other endeavors, the rehiring of a fired CEO was undoubtedly a risky choice for the firm.

Then, shortly after his return to the CEO position, Jobs reached out to Microsoft and secured a direct $150 million capital infusion. Such equity investments are likewise not unprecedented in nature, but the manner in which Jobs introduced and then defended the transaction startled the public. At the 1997 Macworld Expo, Bill Gates himself unexpectedly appeared “live” on an immense view screen, looming over the audience in a manner that reminded some viewers of Big Brother’s presence in Apple’s seminal 1984 Super Bowl ad.

Furthermore, throughout his tenure at Apple, Jobs repeatedly took the risk of striving for product simplicity in an industry that continued (and still continues) to grow increasingly complex over time. Although some simple designs, such as the minimalist Mac Cube, failed in the market place, others — such as the single button iPod, iPhone, and iPad — succeeded wildly. That’s why, for instance, many psychologists now recommend giving iPads to individuals with autism because of their ability to master its simple commands.

The Test Of Time

Ultimately, though, the most impressive accomplishment of Steve Jobs’ career may be his success in maintaining Apple’s position at the forefront of technological innovation for an astounding 35 years. During that time, numerous competitors have risen and fallen, including Xerox, Wang, Compaq, and Yahoo. None was able to maintain a tradition of creative leadership that stretched from the mainframe focused year of 1976 to the cloud computing era of 2011.

Indeed, the sheer longevity of Apple’s reign may represent the greatest legacy of a man in an industry where life cycles are measured in months and years, not decades. And now the attention of the technology community will turn to Tim Cook, Jobs’ successor, to observe whether he will be able to maintain Apple’s track record of accomplishment.