28 October 2016

Steve Blank: “Why Tim Cook is Steve Ballmer and why he still has his job at Apple”

One of the strengths of successful visionary and charismatic CEOs is that they build an executive staff of world-class operating executives (and they unconsciously force out any world-class innovators from their direct reports). The problem is in a company driven by a visionary CEO, there is only one visionary. This type of CEO surrounds himself with extremely competent executors, but not disruptive innovators. While Steve Jobs ran Apple, he drove the vision but put strong operating execs in each domain – hardware, software, product design, supply chain, manufacturing – who translated his vision and impatience into plans, process and procedures.

When visionary founders depart (death, firing, etc.), the operating executives who reported to them believe it’s their turn to run the company (often with the blessing of the ex CEO).  At Microsoft, Bill Gates anointed Steve Ballmer, and at Apple Steve Jobs made it clear that Tim Cook was to be his successor.

Once in charge, one of the first things these operations/execution CEOs do is to get rid of the chaos and turbulence in the organization. Execution CEOs value stability, process and repeatable execution. On one hand that’s great for predictability, but it often starts a creative death spiral – creative people start to leave, and other executors (without the innovation talent of the old leader) are put into more senior roles – hiring more process people, which in turn forces out the remaining creative talent. This culture shift ripples down from the top and what once felt like a company on a mission to change the world now feels like another job.

Steve Blank

The post title says it all really. Not necessarily a new analogy – it’s been tossed around for at least two years if not more – but it becomes more and more relevant as the years go by without meaningful improvements to Apple’s products. The single product introduced during Cook’s tenure as CEO, the Apple Watch, has failed to meet the high expectations and, with no official figures from Apple, third-party analytics firms report massive declines in shipments in the past quarters. The launch of an Apple Car looks increasingly unlikely, their software doesn’t rise up to the level of the competition, even the wireless headphones that were supposed to be a ‘courageous’ step forward towards a wire-free future got indefinitely delayed. And the recent launch of new MacBook Pro models has left fans angry and disappointed. That’s not a good foundation to build the next decade on.

The new MacBook Pros don’t have SD card slots.


Really. Apple’s addlepated, brain-dead, counter-productive insistence on design nicety and the tiresome modernist spare-and-clean design aesthetic above user convenience, usability, and plain old functionality has been a consistent if intermittent failing of the brand over many years. I thought it would die with Steve, because I thought it was his self-indulgent idiosyncratic peccadillo. But no. This is possibly the worst instance yet—Jobs’ indulgent idiosyncratic peccadillo raised to the level of corporate policy. (I’m getting exercised, so whoa boy.) But one big reason I’ve liked my last two large-screen iMacs, and definitely a big part of the appeal of my MacBook Air laptop, is that they all have built-in SD card slots—it’s been especially convenient not to have to carry card readers when I travel like in the bad old days. And one big reason I haven’t replaced my mid-2010 27" iMac is because they relocated the SD card slot to the back, which is exactly where you don’t want it to be, and I know myself well enough to know that I would be annoyed anew every single time I had to stand up and crane my neck over the monitor to see the back of the machine just to insert or remove a card. Just like I’m annoyed every single time I have to swap a USB cable on my iMac because Apple thinks it’s cool somehow to not give you enough USB ports (you’re supposed to buy a Mac Pro if you want enough ports).

Well, I guess I don’t have to worry about any of that any more.

Mike Johnston

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