How Ideas Look in Time

When we favor big data, thinking suffers. There is misbehaving in the real world — making new decisions takes priority over figuring out why something worked well, for example.

We also forget to analyze the non outcomes, what we could have done instead of doing what we did.

“Get it done” has overtaken everything

It's the insta-gratification effect where speed in the things we do often anticipates the experiencing part. We don't revisit how an idea looks in time, as we change.

Last week marked the fourth anniversary of the passing of Steve Jobs. Here's a leader who had the opportunity to revisit his idea in time, as he changed. Though his vision remained firm, the implementation of that vision took a much different form upon his return to Apple.

Tim Cook remembered Steve Jobs in a warm email to the Apple team. In the opening he says (emphasis mine):

[…] the world lost a visionary. We at Apple lost a leader, a mentor, and many of us lost a dear friend.

Steve was a brilliant person, and his priorities were very simple. He loved his family above all, he loved Apple, and he loved the people with whom he worked so closely and achieved so much.

The priorities we have reveal much about us, including the things we choose not to do.


How an idea looks in time

In Becoming Steve Jobs: The Evolution of a Reckless Upstart into a Visionary Leader the chapter describing how Steve Jobs ended up buying Pixar in 1985 is titled a side bet. Though according to Ed Catmull, “He saw Pixar as the core of NeXT.” Catmull says:

“You can't go to the library and find a book titled The Business Model for Animation,” Steve explained. “The reason you can't is because there's only been one company [Disney] that's ever done it well and they were not interested  in telling the world how lucrative it was.”

Rather than focusing on products or events, though it contains good insights on his thinking about products and business decisions, the book talks about Steve Jobs in the beginnings, then with some experiences under his belt undergoing personal growth. 

The evolution of his relationships sheds light on how he staid with ideas over time — culminating in his final years with cancer and the work on the iPhone and iPad. By then, all the decisions that were peripheral to Apple's core product line had been made, all projects and deals not on that roadmap gone.

Steve Jobs did only two formal joint interviews with Bill Gates, one in July 1991 at his house in Palo Alto with Tetzeli (the book's co-author), and one on stage at the D5 conference in 2007, sixteen years later. The conversation is a good reference to understand how both leaders built out their ideas over time by staying with them — and abandoning what they deemed non essential.


Comparing anything to Apple

Is challenging, because Apple is unlike any large company. How it came back from the brink of meh and impending cliff is based on a series of events hard to replicate, luck, as well as important decisions of what not to do in the long run.

In a post about Twitter's Moments, Ben Thompson says:

Much has been made of the comparison between Dorsey and Steve Jobs; certainly his return to the company he helped found and was later banished from fits the mold. It’s easy to mock this comparison, particularly given the fact that Dorsey has at times seemed so eager to invite it, but in fact we should all hope the comparison holds.

There’s just something different about Apple, a company that seems so full of contradictions yet one that has continued to lead the industry both financially and in key innovations.

Dorsey is not Jobs — he makes decisions based on his growth path, relationships, personal culture, etc. — we are not in 1997. Here's what Jobs looked like in 1997 at WWDC Q&A Steve Jobs says (emphasis mine):

I'm sure you've had this experience. Where you change. You're growing as a person. And people tend to treat you like you were 18 months ago. And it's really frustrating sometimes. When you're growing up and you're becoming more capable and you've solved, maybe you had some personality quirks you've gotten over.

Whatever that may be. And people are still treating you the same way they were treating you like a year or 18 months ago. It's very frustrating. Well, it's the same with a company.

It's the same with the press. The press is going to have a lag time. And the best thing we can do about the press is to embrace them, do the best we can to educate them about the strategy. But we need to keep our eye on the prize.

And that is turning out some great products, communicating directly with our customers the best we can. Getting the community of people that are going to make this stuff successful like yourselves in the loop, so you know everything and is marching forward, one foot in front of the other.

The press will take care of itself. It's like the stock price. The press and the stock price will take care of themselves. By the end of this year, it's going to look quite different.

I'm like an old man now. I've seen some ups and downs. And you see enough of them, you know that's going to happen. So when you get up in the morning and the press is selling Apple short, go buy some shares. That's what I would do. That's what I have done.

Twitter is no Apple. It has different challenges ahead. Starting with its product being the communication platform people use to talk about the company — see for example the tweets over Jack Dorsey's email to staff about cuttings, along with media's commentary (to Quartz: I'd change that “better” suggested in line 3 with “differently” — jury is out on how well the money will be spent.)

We tweet and move on. We don't revisit how an idea looks in time, as we change.


Two views of looking at ideas in time

Apple and Twitter do have something in common –they are both public companies. Businesses like them are constantly looking at new ways of creating and capturing value within a time table that needs to take into consideration the stock market valuation process.

Looking at ideas in time means learning to make promises right in reporting (for the auditors) and in products and services to paying customers. It's a delicate balance between guiding the enterprise trajectory and keeping an eye on how it's doing.

Apple is atypical because it came back from a cliff and has been consistently improving over time based on core ideas. That is quite a long run to look back.

One way of looking at ideas in time is through data analysis using an observation system and a business as a lens. At Asymco, Horace Dediu uses modularity as an observation system of how a business is architected and “Apple as a lens to look at existing and emerging tech markets to understand what it means to be great.” 

Another way of looking at ideas in time is through an organization structure singularly focused on its ecosystem. At Monday Note, Jean-Louis Gassée, former head of advanced product development for Apple (ref. page 195 in Becoming Steve Jobs), says:

Apple’s continued success is enabled by a management structure that’s unconventional for a company of any size, and nearly unthinkable for a business with such humongous revenue ($200B+).

Apple is run as a functional organization, no business units, no separate P/L, fewer temptations to build the kind of fiefdoms that ultimately got Google to “liberate” Andy Rubin, Android’s fiercely independent creator.

In this Apple document we see a clean, marketing-free statement of the company’s structure and underlying philosophy [light reformatting and emphasis mine]:

The Company is keenly focused on the relationship with its customers and their experience with the Company’s products and services. The Company’s goal is to deliver innovative products to its customers that operate seamlessly together (the “platform”) and the Company is continuously adding to its ecosystem of services for its customers that work seamlessly across these products. Towards this end, the Company is organized functionally, rather than divisionally, because its senior leadership believes a functional management structure is most conducive to innovation. [***]

The benefits of such an organization structure follow in the statement. One point of note, also explained by Dediu in his analysis, is that due to its organizational structure, Apple does not report detailed revenue and profitability numbers for certain products.

Apple product contributions Asymco

[image via Asymco] Services is Apple’s division of many things. It has the iTunes stores (Music, Video, Apps and iBooks). It has Software with consumer bundles like iWork and iLife and Pro tools like Aperture, Final Cut Pro and Logic Pro. It still has OS X as a product, though revenues are pretty low as updates are now free. It also includes Services with iCloud, Apple Music and Applecare.

As Gassée notes, “Apple insists executive compensation isn’t based on the success or failure of any individual product, but on the company’s overall progress.”

Google, Microsoft, Apple, Samsung

Horace Dediu draws comparisons charts between Google, Microsoft, Apple, Samsung, Amazon and looks at Nokia's historical data for perspective at the beginning of this presentation on how markets are created. The charts are hard to see, but the points in the talk are crisp and valuable.

In the long Q&A of episode #160 of the Critical Path, Dediu says “what causes firms to succeed is the same thing that causes firms to fail.” It's thus important to learn the principles of organization behavior, marketing, and accounting anyway because in disruption theory sustainment needs to coexist with disruption, it's a duality.


We re-read books and find new angles because the lens, us, has changed. Some of us re-read and edit our own work. Same content, different perspective and skill. But we don't re-meet at a conference on the same content to revisit how the ideas look in time, as we change. Why?


[image via Pixabay CC0 Public Domain]

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