Written by Craig Charley – Mon 17 Oct 2011
Steve Jobs' recent death has brought up a huge amount of discussion. His innovation for great products and financial success at Apple has deemed him a genius - giving him a Godlike status. It is without question that from 1997 onward, Jobs saved Apple from failure and has revolutionised the computing industry while making a lot of money in the process.
However, he did this with a very unorthodox management style. In fact he flew in the face of the management technique of other Silicon Valley companies.
While Google and Microsoft promote openness and strive to make their employees happy, Apple is incredibly secretive and most employees lived in fear of Jobs: but it worked. So how did Steve Jobs achieve such success while ignoring all traditional notions of business management?
Steve Jobs was unique as a CEO in the decisions he made; everything had to go through him from design to launch of a product. Not just the big decisions but the little ones right down to the design of the Apple shuttle bus and what food was served in the canteens.
It has been reported that Google encourages its employees to spend 20% of their time on personal projects.
The fruits of this tactic have included Gmail and Google News - both highly successful Google projects. Contrary to this, Steve Jobs ran the tightest ship in Silicon Valley. Every product was his own vision and woe betide the person who altered it. Clear vision coupled with effective communication meant that Apple's aim was to release products exactly how Jobs envisaged them. This design strategy - avoiding the group effort of most manufacturing companies is risky - if Jobs comes up with a bad idea then a huge amount of resources have been wasted. The thing is - he didn't come up with bad ideas.
There have been some big flops from Apple but Jobs blamed these on his employees not realising his ideas. Flops such as MobileMe were damaging for Apple but the idea itself wasn't to blame it was the execution - as shown by Apple's recent launch of iCloud - essentially an improved version of MobileMe that is closer to Jobs' vision.
Steve Jobs' micromanagement style in which he dictated everything at Apple only worked due to his knack for innovation and Apple's relatively small amount of products. Proof of this is that Apple only have 12 mainline products for sale (each with a number of variations). It would be almost impossible for any other business to take an approach in which one person makes every decision. Effective delegation and trust in your employees to make key decisions is important in running a successful team.
Apple was set up as a top-down management style in which employees are chosen for expertise and not experience. Shunning the training of managers, Jobs preferred experts each in control of a function in the place of a few well-rounded managers. For example - the manager of the online store would not chose photos for the store, that would be down to the graphics department.
This is a unique strategy of managing staff that allows the best possible staff to be working exclusively in their field of expertise but is also very rigid. Rather than promoting fluidity between departments Jobs kept them separate and required each executive to make sure their area was perfect instead of concentrating on somebody else's.
Steve Jobs insisted that every project at Apple had a DRI - a directly responsible individual. Those in charge were particularly vulnerable to this and were expected to deliver results.
This method of risk management doesn't give staff second chances. An example would be the launch of MobileMe in 2008 which became a a huge flop. Jobs reportedly assembled the team for an angry dressing down and proceeded to replace the responsible executive on the spot. Apple staff weren't just responsible for creating great products that sold - they were tasked with reproducing the Steve Jobs vision accurately.
Assigning responsibility is an important part of risk management but it the level of responsibility at Apple is excessive - although it is refreshing to see Vice Presidents held more accountable than lower employees it promotes instability within a business. This only works because of the top-down management style - using qualified but not experienced personal often with little to no management experience. Instead of having well-rounded executives overseeing a variety of products they have clear, concise roles and so are replaceable by a person with the same skills. A well-rounded manager overseeing a number of projects is often protected because of the resources it would take to train somebody up to replace them.
In stark contrast to other Silicon Valley businesses that promote transparency by allowing their employees to post blogs and release software early to developers, Apple shrouds their business and their products in secrecy. Not only are products kept back from the public but even from other employees.
It has been reported that employees are kept separate and only have access to their own areas of the Apple campus - there are even 'no tailgating' signs at Apple (see left) discouraging employees to try and sneak a look at other departments. This means that very few employees knew the details of whole projects thus lowering the risk of details leaking to the public.
Staff were even told not to mention projects to their families. Apple's secrecy has backfired a number of
time - noticeably at new product launches. Apple fans know that keynote speeches mean new products and are whipped up into a frenzy of rumours in the keynote run up - if the new product doesn't meet expectations there is a level of disappointment that overshadows the release.
The latest iPhone launch is a good example - most people were expecting a brand new iPhone 5 and Apple came under a lot of criticism for just releasing an update to the iPhone 4 (albeit with a number of impressive new features).
Keeping products hidden until launch is also risky as it doesn't allow for external testing - many companies release products early (as beta versions) to allow developers/select members of the public to test them. This gives them time to work out any glitches before the full product launch. This didn't seem to bother Jobs as he famously responded to Apple users complaining of poor call functions on the iPhone 4 by telling them they were holding it the wrong way.
The most well known aspect of the Steve Jobs management strategy is fear. Every employee at Apple from top to bottom knew that failure under Jobs meant a severe telling off at best, the sack at worst. This is an incredibly negative management strategy that only works for Apple for one reason - it is the most desirable job in the world for design, software and hardware engineers.
Apple has a surprisingly low turnover for a company that instils fear in it' employees, but even though ex
-staff have spoken out that they were unhappy and paid less than at other similar jobs, they would stay because of the prestige that came with the role. Apple are an anomoly when it comes to treating staff in such a way - Google for example use the exact opposite method. They keep their employees happy and comfortable with volleyball courts and slides. they ask new employees about their favourite snacks and keep them supplied all year!
It is yet to be seen how much of Steve Jobs' controversial management strategy remains at Apple - will they begin to follow other Silicon Valley companies like Google or has Jobs ensured that Tim Cook and co will keep the Apple management style that Jobs created - an autocratic, secretive company that has some of the leading experts in the technology industry in their employment.