How Steve Jobs saved Apple

Oct 5, 2021


The Wharton Graduate

One day, in 1997, a young Wharton School graduate walked the halls of Apple Infinite Loop when he ran into the i-CEO, Steve Jobs. Clothed in his signature turtleneck, Jobs asked the graduate what he was working on. Explaining he had finished work for the day, Jobs responded “Well good, because I need someone to do grunt work.” Home could wait. The graduate was enlisted to take detailed notes whilst Steve Jobs met with dozens of product teams across Apple to determine whether their products or projects would survive.

Business Week

Apple was in great turmoil. Business Week had run a cover the previous year featuring the iconic multi-colour Apple logo with the title ‘The Fall of an American Icon.” Holiday sales had fallen far short of projected targets, months of unused inventory languished and Apple found itself 90-days from insolvency. The computer company which had begun the personal computer revolution was about to go down in flames. Apple’s Board of Directors decided to take one last Hail Mary to save the fledgling company. Purchase NeXT Computers, bring back co-founder Steve Jobs and pray he could save the sinking ship.

Steve Jobs Returns to Apple

One of Steve Job’s greatest creative strengths was knowing how to bring focus. Returning to the company he founded, Jobs deployed this principle without compromise. For weeks, product teams were summoned into a boardroom where they had to explain what they were working on and why their product or project should be allowed to continue. PowerPoints were banned. Jobs hated PowerPoint. He wanted people to hash things out across the table. The weeks unveiled how unfocussed Apple had become over the years. The company were releasing multiple versions of every product with Apple’s Macintosh line-up ranging from numbers 1400 to 9600. Steve Job’s told his biographer Walter Isaacson, “I had people explaining this to me for three weeks. I couldn’t figure it out”. And he began asking a simple question, “Which one do I tell my friend to buy?”

Unable to get a simple response from product teams, Jobs slashed and burned entire line-ups, models and projects. Eventually 70% of the product line had been cut. “You are bright people. You shouldn’t’ be wasting your time on such crappy products” he told one of the teams. But even with 70% of Apple’s areas of focus removed, Jobs still couldn’t understand Apple’s vision and finally had enough.“Stop! This is crazy” he burst out at a big product strategy session.

The Four-Square Chart

Grabbing a magic marker, Jobs stormed to the whiteboard, drawing a horizontal and vertical line to form a four-squared chart. The columns were labelled “Consumer” and “Professional”; the rows were labelled “Desktop” and “Portable”. He told the room that their job was to make four insanely great products, not a dozen mediocre ones. Phil Schiller, then the Senior Vice President of Worldwide Marketing at Apple, recalled “the room was in dumb silence.” Whereas Job’s predecessor Gil Amelio had encouraged the product teams to churn out more products every meeting; Job’s was doing the opposite.

For Job’s, more products equalled more distraction, which caused the total to become less than the sum of its parts. A confused product line up with multiple versions meant Apple couldn’t offer it’s creative best because capacity was diluted trying to achieve too much. But creating an intense concentration on four products suddenly gave Apple the bandwidth it needed to sharply place its creative focus. Talented engineers and industrial designers could invest their full time and effort on making hardware and software for the four quadrants that was better than the rest of the market. Having a strong creative focus enabled Apple to serve its mission to the highest level. To make a contribution to the world by making tools for the mind that advance humankind.

Creating Focus

Creative people have new ideas every single day. And the ideas which feel great come with an urge to action them immediately. But if we do this, if we action every project at once, confusion and distraction will permeate decisions as our mental bandwidth becomes split. The result is an inability to give adequate attention to projects that move-the-needle forward and deliver them to our highest ability. Steve Jobs did the opposite. The Apple designers and engineers had many great ideas, but Jobs forced them to stay concentrated on four product lines and make them the best products in their category. If you find yourself in the situation of working on multiple projects to the point where (a) you cannot bring them to completion or (b) the quality of each project is diminished, I feel it’s time to cull the fat and bring focus back into your creative life. Look through your list of active projects and select the few that bring the truest contribution to your creativity and the world. Detach yourself from the projects that don’t meet those objectives. With resolute focus, you can begin serving others and delivering your creative best once more on the projects that matter.