By David M. Wong
Like many across the world, I was saddened when Steve Jobs passed away last year.Since his death and the release of his official biography, I have encountered a number of instances where people and organizations are asking themselves, "How can we be Apple, not IBM?" What has been most fascinating about these instances is that they have each been followed with a distinctly different opinion on what has made Apple so much more successful than IBM, including:
* Apple's unique culture and lack of corporate bureaucracy
* Apple's barring of PowerPoint presentations in meetings
* Apple's clear and clean segmentation of the market (power user vs. recreational user and desktop vs. mobile to split the market into four quadrants)
* Apple's near-death experience in the late 1990s, where the company was forced to cut costs and strip down to focus on a few remaining products
* Steve Jobs. Period.
What were the determining factors? Apple's comparative success was likely a combination of things. According to Daniel Kahneman, a professor emeritus of psychology at Princeton University:
Success = talent + luck
Great success = a little more talent + a lot of luck
A Lot of Luck
Going with Kahneman's line of thinking, let's first agree that "a lot of luck" certainly had something to do with Apple's great success. I'm not talking about luck in the sense that Apple was lucky to come up with the iPod, iPhone or iPad.
Rather, Apple was lucky in the sense that the designs, user interfaces and branding that it used for these products aligned with consumer needs and preferences virally, and far better than any other competitive offerings. With hindsight, it is easy to point out that these products were destined to be obvious successes. However, at the point when Apple actually had to commit to the aspects of these offerings their success was far from certain, especially at the inception of the iPod.
This type of situation fits well into business author Michael Raynor's strategy paradox: Strategies with the greatest possibility of success also have the greatest possibility of failure. Meaning that the commitment that Apple made to launch the iPod could have led to the final downfall of the firm, had the uncertainty around customer preference, competitive offerings, product adoption and countless other factors ended up negatively. Or in Kahneman's words, Apple had "a lot of luck."
A Little More Talent
Many would agree that Apple's great success was the result of having plenty of talented employees. When we look at the talent side of the equation, is it more likely that Apple's great success was the result of a single differentiating factor or multiple factors?
It is pretty safe to say that Apple was doing a number of things differently than IBM, both from a technical and tactical perspective, as well as a cultural and strategic perspective. Therefore, the higher probability bet in this case is that Apple's great success was from a combination of the things that they were doing differently, likely including all of the reasons cited above and others.
An additional differentiator for Apple is that it has been able to maintain a high degree of congruence in focus across the primary things that it does. In their book, "The Essential Advantage: How to Win with a Capabilities-Driven Strategy," Paul Leinwand and Cesare Mainardi aptly describe this as earning the "right to win" by recognizing, building in, and clearly communicating coherence across an organization's system of distinctive capabilities, its way of creating value (or "way to play"), and its portfolio of products and services.
Winning based on talent starts and ends with leadership. Difficult decisions and trade-offs are required in order to achieve the level of focus and alignment that Apple has achieved. If the leader cannot decide or is not willing to make trade-offs, then a firm ends up doing more than it should -- and its focus gets distributed. Steve Jobs was clearly focused, decisive in his decisions (which he occasionally got criticism for), and a master of communication. He used these skills in combination with his many other capabilities to ensure that everyone at Apple was focused on and tirelessly working toward the same target.
Steve Jobs will clearly be missed in his role driving Apple to constantly innovate and push the envelope on computing devices and user experiences. Fortunately, he left us all with the gift of a phenomenal case study and lessons of how an organization can go from barely surviving to becoming the most dominant player in the market. Now it is our turn to make a dent.
Sent from my iPad (Thank you Mr. Jobs!)
January 10, 2012
Copyright 2012© LRP Publications