The Ephemeral Company Culture

November 14th, 2011

Chris O’Brien fears Apple’s success was dependent much more on Jobs than we have recognized, and thus he thinks their “golden age is over”:

That is the question the book left me asking: Who is the person at Apple who will wake up at 3 a.m. and realize that the latest product is all wrong? Will that person have the courage and standing to walk into Apple, announce he “doesn’t love the latest product” and persuade the company to scrap it and start from scratch after months of work? Jobs did that over and over in his career, Isaacson notes, and his charisma and self-confidence made even folks like Ive willing to follow these gut-wrenching U-turns.

I don’t think this issue is settled.

Jobs focused on making sure Apple is not dependent on one person. The first thing he did was make sure that Apple only hires really, really talented people that genuinely care about what the company is doing. Hiring smart people who believe in the company’s goal is the first thing that should be done, and they have no problem there. Second, Apple is organized to make creating great products as much of a reproducible process as possible. Each department isn’t a self-contained unit where they look out for their own interests above the company’s; rather, they’re integrated into a whole. The online store team, for example, doesn’t control the photos used on the store, and Jony Ive’s design team works on the entire company’s products, rather than just for a certain product division. Third, they’ve tried to capture management’s decision-making process into a set of case studies so the company’s next generation of leaders can be systematically exposed to how they think—and the cases are taught by Apple’s executives.

Fourth, and most important, Jobs’s obsession with making the product as perfect as possible and doing truly incredible things permeates the company. That standard of work is expected of everyone not just by each employee’s manager, but by the employee. They expect it of themselves. This, long-term, is what can make Apple successful—this feeling of what Apple stands for and exists to do. Everyone understands it, and everyone wants to honor it.

That’s the common purpose that’s directed Apple since Jobs returned and has made sure everyone is working toward the same goal. It’s a hell of a lot easier to keep egos and the tempting desire to put your own career goals above the company’s in check when everyone has a shared purpose. Jobs perfectly embodied this, because he started the company and embedded it with this obsession with making great things, and also because he unswervingly stuck to it. Jobs rarely wavered from it and thus, as the company’s leader, kept everyone in the company pointed in the same direction and working toward the same goal.

Unfortunately, though that is probably the most important part of what makes Apple such a fabulously great company, it is also the most ephemeral. Apple is at no risk of losing it in the next few years, but as time passes and that direct connection to Jobs passes, too, it will be all too easy for it to begin fading. What happens when Apple’s management is firmly divided over a decision, but there’s no one that holds everyone’s utmost respect to make the final decision while retaining their reverence, and thus their dedication? It’s very easy for someone’s ego to get bruised when they lose a battle they feel very strongly about and decide there’s better opportunities elsewhere. It’s easy to make it about your career, rather than the company’s best interest, when there’s no one that inspires that respect.

Worse, this could result in the organization ossifying into different departments, with their employees loyal to it rather than the company. If that common purpose begins to fade and become more abstract than it is now, that could happen. Why look out for the interests of the company as a whole when your job is tied to the project you work on? This process starts slowly, subtly, and innocuously—but once it’s done, there’s little to be done.

What can be done, though, is to make sure it never starts. This doesn’t mean glorifying Jobs as some sort of god amongst mortals, because that would be just as debilitating. Rather, they have to continue to do justice to the common purpose he built. Take big risks when it means you could do something incredible. Obsess over making products perfect. Only hire the best, and the people that have that same excitement about making great things. Don’t put up with people who are only there to advance their career. And don’t ever waver from this—it has to be instilled in the company, every day, because a company is an ever-changing combination of people, and they constantly need it reinforced.

I don’t know what will happen. I suspect that Apple will be successful for quite a while regardless, but building an organization that can perpetuate its values is very, very hard, and so it is possible Apple will degenerate into a more normal kind of company at some point. But they have the chance to be one of the few organizations that institutionalize excellence and can reproduce it over decades.