Friday, April 27, 2012

Steve Jobs as a Template? Who does that?

A while back, I came across this, Bio as Bible: Managers Imitate Steve Jobs from the Wall Street Journal. You don't have to go very far into the piece to get the idea -- it's an anecdotal tale of managers across the country who read the Steve Jobs bio and, subsequently, began to approach the ideas as dogma. The article leaves you with the impression that you're watching an episode of The Office and the boss has suddenly decided to start wearing black turtle necks.

Caveat emptor, I haven't read the Jobs biography, so I can't say whether I'll go finish the book and go straight to shopping for my own turtle necks wardrobe, but I don't expect that to be the result. I could be wrong. But my real focus here is on underlying essence of this imitation, on understanding good design, what makes art good, and why.

Let's take wine tasting as an example. Most of us are familiar with the vocabulary and ceremony associated with wine tasting. And while the vocabulary may seem artificial and pretentious to some, within the wine tasting culture it has meaning and purpose. Now, if you were to segment the wine community, you might start with some big chunks:
  • Let's start with people who don't drink much wine or who aren't familiar with many varieties. For them, Two-buck Chuck is good enough -- they probably wouldn't be sensitive to subtleties and they certainly wouldn't pay a lot for them. They probably don't use wine tasting descriptions and the probably don't worry much about "rating systems". 
  • I would probably put myself into a second group. I've tasted a lot of wine and used that as a basis for my preferences. I'm willing to spend some money on more expensive wines on occasion, but tend to make selections and second purchases based on how a wine matches my preferences. I don't use wine tasting vocabulary and I don't pay attention to ratings.
  • At the upper end of the spectrum and people who spend a lot of money on wine and taste a lot of varieties. These people use the wine tasting vocabulary and they pay attention to rating systems. They make selections based on their tastes and preferences, but also understand how that vocabulary correlates to their preferences. They are probably collectors.
  • Finally, you have the last set that I really want to talk about -- those people who use wine tasting vocabulary, who buy based on rating systems, price criteria, varietal and other characteristics, but who don't really understand or correlate those factors to an actual taste preference. These are the pretentious people who buy the most expensive wines or ones with the highest rating -- or maybe they only buy Pinot Noir because they watched Sideways. These are the people who would probably blindly drink Two-buck Chuck and describe it with flowery wine tasting vocabulary. 
It's this last group that we both love and hate. As marketers, we love them because they are so easily influenced by our efforts. As sales guys we love them, because in many ways that have sucker buyer stamped on their forehead. These are the people who deliver high margins because at the root of it, they don't have meaningful expectations.

Why don't they have meaningful expectations? Because they don't understand quality. Because the only qualities that they value are not related to form and function. They don't look at the world in that way.

Remember when, in the early days of the iPhone, RIM introduced it's own touchscreen phone? Part of the reason why these things come to market is because somebody somewhere said, "Hey, it does the same thing that ours does but it has a music player app store touch screen. We need a touch screen." It's not like the only difference was the touch screen, but how do you explain an entire, integrated landscape in a meeting?

Why is it that most copies are poor versions of the original? Well, going back to the Steve Jobs imitators, imagine if you could follow a Steve Jobs pattern, step for step, note for note. The best you could hope to achieve would still be an echo of the original. What you would miss are those moments of originality, of creative birth that produced many of the things that we look back on historically as unique. Why? Because your path to following the Steve Jobs recipe would be driven by "what would Steve do" instead of "what do I think is right". Hal Holbrook does a great Mark Twain, but he's not Samuel Clemens.

Imitation can be a great tool for learning. By repeating the steps in a recipe, you develop an understanding of the mechanics of cooking a dish. But until you understand the how and why of the recipe, you don't really own it. You don't make new, you just make. In the end, what did you learn from the recipe -- about the ingredients, about the process, about why the pieces fit together? This underlying learning process is the heart of what makes you good at something.

In business there is this idea that it's all simply recipe and process. If you can just make a smart phone with a touch screen, an app store and the apps that people like, you'll have an equivalent to the iPhone. Then, if you add a few more features that people like, maybe a memory slot, a faster processor or a removable battery, you'll have more features and you will sell more units than the iPhone. Maybe you understand the parts. Maybe you understand what the parts add up to. But if you can't see the bigger picture, the underlying connection for why those parts -- and those specific parts -- go together, you still don't understand.

To quote Frank Zappa from a 1984 issue of Guitar Player magazine:
What do you think happened in this country?
Well, two important things, and each one of them has only three letters: One was LSD, a chemical which is capable of turning a hippie into a yuppie, one of the most dangerous chemicals known to mankind. And the other is MBA. When people started taking MBA seriously, that was the beginning of the ruination of the American industrial society. When all decisions are based on an MBA's concept of numerical reality, you're in deep shit, because the only thing that can be judged as real is that which can be proved by a column of figures. And when all aesthetic decisions are turned over to these kinds of people, who use these criteria to make steering decisions for a company with no regard for people and no regard for what the product really is, and the only thing that matters is maximizing your profit, you have a problem. Because you can't have quality then; you cannot have excellence. Quality's expensive. I think most of these people that come from business schools have the desire to make sure everything is cheesy. That's what happens when you do things that way.
Of course, it's worth noting that in a lot of modern marketing, creativity and original content matter less than numerical performance. Consider web advertising. While copy and content may be a hook, the real measure (and the thing that you have to optimize on) is click-through and conversion. Not to say that there aren't more complex issues at work, simply that the issue isn't black and white. But hopefully, as people read the biography and begin to study the what and why of Steve Jobs, they find themselves drawn into the world of creativity and art. Hopefully, they find a deeper appreciation of aesthetic aspects and a greater tolerance for the differences that creative thinking brings. But mostly, let's just hope that it doesn't spawn a whole new generation of pretentious wine/design snobs who claim to know so much but who really understand so little.

No comments: