"We are such stuff as dreams are made on." Shakespeare, The Tempest

Sunday, October 14, 2018


Typically as a company transitions from an enterprising, creative new venture to a large organization to be managed, a staid CEO replaces a visionary founder. In the case of Steve Jobs at Apple, the very nature of the man’s vision was not only inherently at odds with the status-quo underpinning of a large organization with a budget, but also essential to the company’s business model. Hence, the company, including its shareholders, paid a price for years for jettisoning Jobs. The film, Jobs (2013), is centered on the distinctiveness of Jobs’ vision. Although the film also hints at why this distinctiveness is such that the company would (and did) lose as a large organization after making the typical founder-to-CEO transition.

On the surface, Steve Jobs’ vision was to create new products that people could use. In fact, Jobs wanted the invented products to play a ubiquitous role in people’s lives—even being a virtual extension of their arms. Considering the Apple phones, laptops, ipads, and ipods that resulted from this vision after its initial desk-top computer manifestation, Jobs turned out to be incredibly successful. Perhaps the lesson we can draw is that it takes a lot of time for a different vision of society to come to fruition. Besides the sheer time it takes to invent and implement a product that is radically different, the tyranny of the status quo in institutions as well as a society itself acts as a solid counter-force that holds the process back—especially from one invented product to the next on the long way to the vision being realized.
The vision was so massive in terms of how much it would change society, including what people do on a daily basis, and so different from the status quo societally that the normal transition from a founder to an organizationally-ensconced CEO threatened the realization of the vision from being accomplished. As if this problem were not enough, the film shows the viewer just how much of an asshole Jobs could be (someone actually calls him that in the film). More typically of a founder, Jobs also tossed out the strictures of budges on a regular basis. In the film, he says that the next product line should risk the whole company, presumably because of the sheer differentness of the next invention. In fact, he also says that he wants different, not just better. So rather than assume that the company’s focus should be on an incrementally better version of the Apple II desktop computer, he pushed the untested Macintosh project, to which he had been tasked by the CEO, into front and center for the company even though that project by its very nature as radically new needed more money, staff and time (including a two-year extension on the delivery date) than the board could accept. At the time, seventy percent of the revenue was coming from the Apple II, so why not act like a company in business and focus on the winner rather than an untested product line?
Yet to Steve Jobs, the very point of Apple (and perhaps any company) is not finally to maximize profit, but, rather, to build something that will not only be useful, but will change society. It was the status quo and its sycophants that Jobs pointed to as the societal sickness. The year 1984 would not reflect George Orwell’s book, 1984, which describes an autocratic, totalitarian society. Apple would see to it that a different society would exist—different to not only the status quo prior to 1984, but also a future in which people do not have the ability (and thus freedom) to express themselves as unique (and free) individuals. Jobs wanted employees whom society viewed as crazy for thinking outside the box—even questioning societal assumptions. This included thinking outside the organizational box—even questioning organizational constraints that enforce the status quo. HR departments don’t usually seek out such people to hire. The distinctiveness of Job’s vision thus meant that the company could not be run as other companies—those that are inherently ensconced in the societal and even organizational status quo. In fact, large corporations even unwittingly promote and enforce the societal status quo because they can make a lot of money in it.
How to break the natural law of founder-to-CEO transition in organizational lifecycles by retaining a founder’s power while still giving some heed to financial constraints is the question that the film does not answer; Jobs is simply replaced, then let back in again. The vision gains new force, but what of the running of the large organization viably so it can continue to deliver financial resources for different, rather than just better, projects that are untested and by their very nature long in gestation? In short, what if a founder’s vision is not so easily replaced by an organizational mission that everyone pays lip-service to but in actuality ignores? Apple depended on Jobs not only because of his inventive brilliance, but also the very nature of his distinctive vision.