Steve Jobs: Lessons From the Master Tweaker



Malcolm Gladwell checks in this week with his appreciation of Steve Jobs in this week’s New Yorker (November 14th) entitled “The Tweaker.”

Well put.

Gladwell has written before about Jobs and his contribution to the art and science of  innovation, the evidence is what Apple developed across his four decades with the company.

Gladwell’s insight that Jobs was not an inventor like Thomas Edison or Benjamin Franklin–but perhaps he was something more important than that.

He was, to use the English term, “a tweaker.” Steve Jobs was a person who could take a pretty good idea from someone else,  and by the sheer force of his personality, turn it into a fantastic idea.

In the 19th Century in England there were several notable “tweakers” who vastly improved inventions spawned by the Industrial Revolution. This is why, according to some scholars, Great Britain was the engine of the Industrial Revolution, not France or Germany. Gladwell cites the example of the spinning wheel, invented nominally by Samuel Crampton in 1779, but tweaked by a half dozen people, including Richard Roberts, the master of precision machine tooling.

Precision idea tooling was, in a sense, Steve Job’s gift.

He forced his brittle, mono-maniacal sensibilities onto a series of consumer product ideas invented by others (sometimes stolen, he admitted, as with the infamous Xerox PARC visit of 1979) and made these products great, great works of collective genius.

He pretty much got the credit for these inventions and well, that was  also part of his curse/gift.

Malcolm Gladwell has written before about the changing nature of genius—that “inspired” individual geniuses like Einstein are being supplanted by geniuses who are “synthesizers.” These geniuses reach across several new ideas to pull together a single, synthetic idea bigger and more important than the combination of the parts.

One of my favorite Gladwell articles of all time is about Ron Popiel, the great TV pitchman and inventor of the Veg-O-Matic, among many other consumer treasures. Popiel reminds me of a friendly Steve Jobs—someone who loved taking other people’s ideas and making them much better. And both men really truly loved the art of presenting ideas,  of pitching ideas to the public.  Synthetic geniuses who knew how to pitch ideas to their audience.  That’s the future of genius, I think.  And Steve Jobs showed us the way.

Clearly there’s a lot of money to be made sharpening other people’s pencils—once you take the pencil away from them, and then sell it to others.

So what are the lessons to be learned by the start-up or the agile marketing team from Steve Jobs, Master Tweaker?

It seems there are at least these three:

1. Never fall in love with your own ideas. A VC friend of mine tells me that when he’s considering a business plan “the idea” ranks #4 among the criteria he judges it by. What’s #1? The quality and commitment of the executive team, especially the CEO. What’s #2? “The experience and ability of the executive to revise and change their plan when their big idea turns out to be wrong.”

2. Your process should be built around quickly identifying ideas that are working and building fast on those ideas. Agile methodology starts with a vision or direction, which I’ve heard called “True North.” True North might be “build a better smartphone.” Or it might be “bring our products into the Chinese Market.” There’s a lot of ideas you will come up with trying to solve these problems—big ideas, small ideas—and they all matter. You need to process them and figure out if they matter or don’t—fast. And keep building on success.

3. Details matter—a lot. In his appreciation of Jobs this week Gladwell re-counts the story of how much Jobs loved the personal jet owned by his friend, Oracle founder Larry Ellison. He loved every detail so much he had the same designer build exactly the same jet for him. But then Jobs noticed details he didn’t like and they started bugging him. He began ripping out pieces and having them re-designed and engineered. Once such detail was that Ellison’s jet had a door into the cabin that had two buttons, “open” and “close.” Jobs replaced it with a single button that toggled. Another was that all the buttons in the jet were polished steel. Jobs had them thrown out and replaced with brushed metal buttons. Ellison says, ““I look at his airplane and mine,” Ellison says, “and everything he changed was better.”

The best quality of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs is that it shows us a full 360 degrees around the man. He was brilliant, he valued simplicity and grace in design, and he was finally a great family man who died too young.

And he was a narcissistic, bullying perfectionist who would abuse his own people, screaming that their ideas were no good—no matter what they did just to goad them to do better.

Somewhere amid all of these powerful, conflicted forces was the man who defined innovation at the turn of the 21st century.  And this is a time when we need innovation desperately in our world.



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About Rohn Jay Miller

I'm a strategic designer who works with clients who are transforming their business models because of change brought on by the Internet. Solving disruption is often a problem and an opportunity at the same time. Previously I was a founding partner of Ikonic/USWeb in San Francisco, and Senior Vice President--Product & Technology for Knight Ridder in San Jose.

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