Steve Jobs’s second leadership lesson is ‘simplify’ and with this his skill was about zeroing in on the essence of the Apple products and eliminating all unnecessary components that would perhaps contribute to clutter or remain useless in the eyes of the consumer. In Apple’s first marketing brochure their bold stand out statement was ‘simplicity is the ultimate sophistication’.
Jobs’s learning and intuition towards simplicity came from one of his very first jobs on the night shift at Atari. Thinking about it, Atari was well before their time and many products on today’s market could well do with their approach and philosophy towards keeping things simple. Atari’s games in their heyday were so uncomplicated that they came without any sort of manual and again were left to the intelligence and intuition of the user to figure them out. Atari’s Star Trek game came with just two instructions – ‘1. Insert quarter, 2. Avoid Klingons’.
In the essence of keeping things simple Jobs can also be applauded for bringing one of technologies great innovations to the masses. On visiting Xerox’s Palo Alto research centre one day and seeing the plans for a computer with a graphical interface and mouse he set about making the design both simpler and more intuitive. The beloved mouse, a neat little contraption that sits next to you without answering back and facilitates a joyous navigation of any computer, Jobs and his team’s great innovation was to design the drag and drop mechanism. Xerox however as a larger organisation had got sucked into complexity by adding the bells and whistles, they had developed a mouse that had three buttons and cost $300. Jobs approached a designer he knew called Dean Hovey with a simple request – design one that would retail at $15 and deliver the additional drag/drop functionality his team had developed. Hovey duly delivered and the mouse was suddenly within reach of the everyday PC consumer.
Jobs’s drive for simplicity was about conquering complexity and producing machines that engaged their consumers in a friendly rather than challenging way and it needed drive to achieve this, by no means was this a simple process or were the answers there just waiting to be plucked from the air. In Jobs’ view “It takes a lot of hard work to make something simple, to truly understand the underlying challenges and come up with elegant solutions”.
During the design of the iPod interface Jobs at each meeting looked at ways to cut clutter, he insisted on getting to wherever he wanted in three clicks. He wanted one navigation screen to search songs across different categories from song, album or artist, they even came across the crazy idea of doing away with the on/off button – now that’s very bold, counter intuitive and simplifies things! This theory and drive for simplicity continues across the Apple product range today.
When it comes to simplify in terms of leadership and leading people, there are some very relevant comparisons with man versus machine in today’s organisations. Firstly, we create excessive clutter for ourselves through the language we use and behaviours we show, too often playing a game of façade rather than having honest, open conversations and truly working together in a transparent way. Corporate jargon exists seemingly to impress rather than facilitate effective communication and working relationships and in general there is this sense of busy – rather than purposeful and there is a big difference. Contrary to the Atari games, very often we do not provide simple instructions to each other, or allow colleagues to use their initiative regularly and figure out the instructions and how to play for themselves. As managers, all too often we are auto advice givers and jump in to provide direction and spoon feed the solutions for people, nurturing a perpetual cycle of caution and reliance.
So what’s the alternative? For me it is about taking on coaching as a leadership style and doing it more effectively and more often, allowing people to think for themselves and learn rather than be taught. You don’t need to look any further than neuroscience to understand why coaching works so well when it is delivered effectively. Neuroscience is ultimately what makes us tick and behave in the way we do and it basically comes down to the brain asking itself two simple questions, lots of times every second. Is this risk? or Is this reward? Coaching engages people because it enables a perspective of reward – this is my solution, my idea and I know what I need to do next and the benefit it will generate me. That is why when coaching becomes a typical and informal management conversation it will be the truly undiscovered jewel in the leadership toolkit of many an organisation.