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Steve Jobs and NOT embracing customer-driven-product-development

Often when talking about product process people will say “what about Steve Jobs?”

Look, Steve Jobs doesn’t go out and ask customers what they want. He doesn’t put out crappy, buggy products and then ask for feedback. And he doesn’t shy away from big-bang launch events. He tells customers what they want, and he gets it right. So how do you reconcile his success with the lean startup, which seems to suggest the opposite?”   I don’t know Steve, nor have I worked at Apple or Pixar. So I can’t speak for what happens on the inside.   We all seem to have a mythical sense of how Jobs works, based mostly on speculation and our very human desire to believe in heroes.    My normal answer is that I don’t really think that’s how Apple products are built.

Here’s an interesting blog post that quotes this phenomena:
Steve Jobs on why Apple doesn’t do market research – Bokardo
“It’s not about pop culture, and it’s not about fooling people, and it’s not about convincing people that they want something they don’t. We figure out what we want. And I think we’re pretty good at having the right discipline to think through whether a lot of other people are going to want it, too. That’s what we get paid to do.”

The key phrase for me is “having the right discipline to think through whether a lot of other people are going to want it.”   Getting customer feedback is emphatically not about abandoning your vision or abdicating responsibility for innovating. Instead, it’s about testing visionary ideas against reality, to discover what really works. Put another way, feedback’s not about you – it’s about them. When a customer tells you how they feel about your ideas, that doesn’t tell you anything about your ideas. It tells you something about what that customer thinks and feels. Figuring out whether and how to incorporate that new information into your vision is your job. As Steve says, “That’s what we get paid to do.”  Now, I can’t speak to what process Steve Jobs uses to get his team to do this market assessment. Maybe they do it at the whiteboard. Maybe they just have great gut instincts. Or maybe there is the occasional potential customer or early prototype involved. But I’m willing to make some guesses. Here’s how I make sense of their success. From here on out, this is strictly my imagination talking. To be clear, I don’t know if Apple really works this way.

First, note the important use of work-in-progress constraints (kanban). As Steve says in the source interview:
Apple is a $30 billion company, yet we’ve got less than 30 major products. I don’t know if that’s ever been done before. Certainly the great consumer electronics companies of the past had thousands of products. We tend to focus much more. People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully.
Having so few products means Apple can dedicate enormous resources to each project once it gets the green light. But it also means they have to be very careful kill projects if they are not trending towards something great. Which comes to the second major principle: halt work that leads to more waste, even if it means abandoning sunk costs. This is a version of the andon cord technique from lean manufacturing.

Steve describes it like this:
At Pixar when we were making Toy Story, there came a time when we were forced to admit that the story wasn’t great. It just wasn’t great. We stopped production for five months…. We paid them all to twiddle their thumbs while the team perfected the story into what became Toy Story. And if they hadn’t had the courage to stop, there would have never been a Toy Story the way it is, and there probably would have never been a Pixar. “We called that the ‘story crisis,’ and we never expected to have another one. But you know what? There’s been one on every film.  These two principles combine to free up tremendous resources for raw R&D and innovation, because so few people are stuck working on “death march” internal projects or maintaining low-success released products.

Most executives, especially in startups, don’t have the courage to hold their teams to a high standard for new products or features. Just because something looks pretty, or feels like a good idea, or has a lot of sunk cost in it, does not mean it should be pursued. Not even if it’s generating revenue. The only efforts a new product team should be expending are those that lead to validated learning about customers. Here’s hoping Steve will share those techniques with us someday. In the meantime, I hope some of you will find the lean startup a helpful framework.

Overall, here are the lessons I take from (the imaginary) Steve Jobs:

Hold your team to high standards, don’t settle for products that don’t meet the vision, iterate, iterate, iterate.

  • Be disciplined about which vision to pursue; choose products that have large markets.
  • Discover what’s in customers’ heads, and tackle problems where design is a differentiator.
  • Work on as few products as possible, keep resources in reserve for experimentation.
  • Start over (pivot) if you find yourself with a product that’s not working.

So thanks, Steve, for the inspiration, the great products, and the great advice. Here’s hoping future innovators who will follow in your footsteps are reading today.

November 8, 2010


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