Scheduling Spontaneity

Posted by jlubans on July 29, 2014


I’ve long admired and used Apple products and services. At the same time I have never quite figured out how an allegedly tyrannical boss like Steve Jobs could evoke so much innovation, quality and customer-centeredness from his staff. Did fear really rule Apple?
So, I was drawn to a recent inside look at how the Apple design team worked as told by Mark Kawano, who worked for seven years in design (the iPhone and its many apps) and “user experience” at the Cupertino, California headquarters.
The interview with Mr. Kawano is broken into four myths; ones, which he counters with the way it really was. (N.B. I’ve tinkered with the wording of the headings.)
#1 Apple Has the World’s Best Designer(s).
Apple’s success in design is not traceable to a single person or design team. It goes back to a company wide culture in which “Everyone cares.” Everyone - not just the designers - thinks about the Apple product and its design. If you are an engineer, you think about the design of what you are working on. If you are in marketing, you are thinking about design and how it relates to the product you will be promoting. “Steve would say, this 'holistic' thing, is everything.” Now, there is nothing new in this. We all want staff to have the big picture and to work with that viewpoint, to made decisions with that big picture in mind. Apple appeared, under Jobs, to accomplish what the rest of us have longed for but rarely achieved.
#2 Apple’s Design Team is Huge.
If you are a contrarian like me you won’t be surprised that, in spite of being a large corporation, Apple’s design team was quite small. Instead of the 1,000 or more at Google or the hundreds at Facebook, Apple’s design team, under Jobs leadership, was roughly 100 people. How can that be? The how relates to Myth #1 and Apple’s emphasis on the “holistic thing”. Engineers, who were not part of the design team, nevertheless thought and worked on design concepts. They collaborated with the designers and were able to offer hands-on support; no fiefdoms or silo architecture at Apple. The take away for other organizations is Apple’s genuine collaboration: real working together without the turf battles, secrecy, and razor wire fences guarding one department against another. Again, just like the “holistic thing” this is not a new concept, but Apple made it work.
#3 Apple Schedules Spontaneity.
Apple tends to out perform other IT firms in its attention to detail, to its ability to anticipate what users want and need. Every product seems to come with instances of “meaningful delight” built into it. Other firms, Mr. Kawano suggests, try to emulate Apple’s inventiveness and creativity. What the other firms fails to understand is that the playfulness and spontaneity are not realized under a deadline. Instead, the small design team (100 vs. 1,000) has the freedom and expectation to use its down time to explore and to invent and to share what they are working on in their off moments. That’s where many of Apple’s “cool” stuff comes from – something played at three years before finding a natural home in a product in its design phase. The takeaway for other organizations is that creativity cannot be scheduled. You cannot order someone to produce cool stuff. If you give people time, resources and space to think, to play, to invent, then those shared ideas can be drawn upon during crunch-time.
#4 Steve Jobs Scared Everyone.
Apparently, Mr. Jobs was very demanding and very passionate about Apple products. He never could understand anyone who worked for him who would not give up nights, weekends and vacation to bring a product to market. That was who he was and he expected no less of anyone else. One of the article’s snarky comments sums up a response many of us might have to Mr. Jobs, the martinet: “Giving up weekends, vacations, generally any personal life, for a man’s passion to objects... yeah, that's healthy.”
But, if your job is not “just a job” there will be times when you do make sacrifices, when you do postpone personal stuff to focus on “work”. It’s not that you are forced to do this; rather it is what you want to do. You get into a “flow” state and find yourself losing track of time – but it feels good. If you work at Apple or any other creative and competitive enterprise, it may be difficult, if not impossible, to follow a 9-5 routine, with two coffee breaks and a hour long lunch with occasional chit-chat with your office mates.
That said, all work and no play does take a personal toll and research suggests that a balance between work and non-work will result in better products and services.
Mr. Kawano, when asked if Mr. Jobs ever complimented him, draws upon a pretty bleak history of personal interaction: "The only thing that was really positive was, in the cafeteria one time, when he (Mr. Jobs) told me that the salmon I took looked really great, and he was going to go get that."
At the same time, Mr. Jobs was very accessible and all for a democratic workplace in which he expected to be treated like everyone else.

@Copyright John Lubans 2014

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