Tag Archives: Steve Jobs

Charles Dickens, Twyla Tharp, Steve Jobs – Focus; Focus on the Core, the Spine

The first steps of a creative act are like groping in the dark:  random and chaotic, feverish and fearful, a lot of busy-ness with no apparent or definable end in sight.  There is nothing yet to research.  For me, these moments are not pretty.  I look like a desperate woman, tortured by the simple message thumping away in my head:  “You need an idea.” 
You need a tangible idea to get you going.  The idea, however miniscule, is what turns the verb into a noun – paint into a painting, sculpt into sculpture, write into writing, dance into a dance.
…Spine, to put it bluntly, begins with your first strong idea.  You were scratching to come up with an idea, you found one, and through the next stages of creative thinking you nurtured it into the spine of your creation.  The idea is the toehold that gets you started.  The spine is the statement you make to yourself outlining your intentions for the work…  If you stick to your spine, the piece will work. (emphasis added). 
Twyla Tharp — The Creative Habit:  Learn it and Use it for Life (A Practical Guide)


Charles Dickens

I was listening to NPR the other day.  It was the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens.  Any author that receives a segment on his 200th birthday (plus a birthday party at Westminster Abbey) qualifies as a significant author.  But we didn’t need NPR to tell us that.

In the midst of the story by Linda Wertheimer (Dickens At 200: A Birthday You Can’t ‘Bah Humbug’), this paragraph jumped out.

Novelist Jennifer Egan is a fan who came back to the books and unexpectedly found that Dickens felt modern.
“The way that Dickens structured his books has a form that we most readily recognize now from, say, the great TV series, like The Wire or The Sopranos,” says Egan. “There’s one central plot line, but then from that spin off all kinds of subplots. And so he would go off in all sorts of directions and create these amazing secondary characters who would go in and out of focus. But then there was also this sort of central spinal column of a plot that he would return to.”

“This sort of central spinal column of a plot…”  When I heard this, I remembered the section about “spine” from Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit.  To Tharp, you need an idea!  And then, that idea has to be attached to the “spine,” and the “spine” is what centers the piece, centers the project, centers the “idea.”

This idea of “spine” reminds me of the Steve Jobs decision, upon his return to Apple.  Apple had too many products in the pipeline.  They were too unfocused.  They had lost their spine.  Jobs got rid of practically every project except the core two or three.  Jobs helped them re-find and remember their spine.

Call it backbone, but don’t think just of courage; think of connection to the core, connection to the central idea.  Consider the dictionary definition of spinal column:  “constituting a central axis or chief support.”  Everything is connected to, and supported by, the spinal column.  You can’t have a body, a structure, a company without that central axis or chief support.

The word spine is also the word used to hold the pages of a book together.  No spine, no book – just a loose connection of pages.

Business books use many words to describe this concept:  focus; core product…  but here is the clear principle:  have a solid, sound, unshakeable core.

In the devotional classic, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, the main character, Christian, is trying to cross the river.  The water is moving rapidly; the water is rising, and he is about to go under. But Hopeful calls out from the midst of the same dangerous river:

Then they addressed themselves to the water, and entering, Christian began to sink, and crying out to his good friend Hopeful, he said, I sink in deep waters; the billows go over my head; all his waves go over me.
And Hopeful calls out:  “Be of good cheer, my brother, for I feel the bottom, and it is sound.” 

“Feel the bottom.”  Get the spine right.  Get the core product, the core principle, the core service right.  Don’t go off chasing anything that is not utterly connected to your core – your spine.

Dickens, and Tharp, and Jobs, and Bunyan had it right.

What is your spine?

Three Crucial Roles that Can Create Business Success (A Case Study about Apple from the NY Times)

{This is prompted by a terrific article, with many images that add insight, in the New York Times about Apple:  How the U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work by Charles Duhigg and Keith Bradsher.  Both Tyler Cowen and Paul Krugman have praised this article.  Cowen says it deserves one of the Sidney Awards from David Books:  “This is an excellent article, and perhaps it will win one of David Brooks’s Sidney Awards.”  Many others have written favorable reviews of the article.  In other words, it has been all over the place on the web!}

Though the article is being discussed regarding about Apple’s use of/dependence on work done in China, the article is an amazing Business Success 101 tour de force.

Here is what we learn, boiled own to a simple formula.  A company needs three roles filled very, very well to achieve success.  Here are those three roles:

#1 – The Role Of The “This Is What Needs To Be Done” Leader
#2 – The Role Of The “This Is How We Are Going To Get That Done” Make-It-Happen Overseer
#3 – The Role Of The “I/We Will Get That Done For You” Worker(S)

In the article, Steve Jobs, of course, filled the role of #1 – The Role Of The “This Is What Needs To Be Done” Leader.  Here’s the key excerpt:

In 2007, a little over a month before the iPhone was scheduled to appear in stores, Mr. Jobs beckoned a handful of lieutenants into an office. For weeks, he had been carrying a prototype of the device in his pocket.
Mr. Jobs angrily held up his iPhone, angling it so everyone could see the dozens of tiny scratches marring its plastic screen, according to someone who attended the meeting. He then pulled his keys from his jeans.
People will carry this phone in their pocket, he said. People also carry their keys in their pocket. “I won’t sell a product that gets scratched,” he said tensely. The only solution was using unscratchable glass instead. “I want a glass screen, and I want it perfect in six weeks.”

And then, the role of the #2 – The Role Of The “This Is How We Are Going To Get That Done” Make-It-Happen Overseer (“overseer” is the word I propose) was played by a “get to it to get-it-done” executive:

After one executive left that meeting, he booked a flight to Shenzhen, China. If Mr. Jobs wanted perfect, there was nowhere else to go.

A production line in Foxconn City in Shenzhen, China. The iPhone is assembled in this vast facility, which has 230,000 employees, many at the plant up to 12 hours a day, six days a week. (Thomas Lee/Bloomberg News)

And then ultimately the role of the #3 – The Role Of The “I/We Will Get That Done For You” Worker(S) was filled by Foxconn at Foxconn City in China.  The article is worth reading just to see how amazing their scheduling capabilities are at this company.

These three roles provide the essence of business success.. You have to know what to do; you have to have someone (know how to) make that happen; and then you have to have workers actually fulfill the “make it happen” role.

Call it what you want:  vision; planning; execution.  But this article in the New York Times is a great case study of just how to succeed in business.  These three roles have to be filled — and filled well!

(I’ll leave the discussion about sending some of the jobs overseas for others to discuss.  And, yes, there are some pretty serious issues to discuss about worker conditions.  But such discussion does not change the need for these three roles to be filled – and filled well).

“Steve Jobs was the greatest advocate for the customer I have ever seen” – the insight of the year!

Last Friday at our First Friday Book Synopsis, I presented my synopsis of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson for the first time.  I repeated it to another audience on Tuesday and, I suspect, will do so a number of more times in the weeks/months to come.  I have found that a book synopsis is a great conversation starter, and then, a valuable and useful “let’s think about things” catalyst.  Isaacson’s book is terrific for just such a purpose.

So, on Tuesday, a man walked up and wanted to talk about Steve Jobs (the person, the business leader – not just the book).  This is a sharp man.  He earned a PhD, he started a successful company, and he is involved in an exciting new start-up.  He is extremely well-read.  (In this conversation, he told me of a book that I have not read, and I immediately downloaded into my iPad).  Oh — he is also a long-time Mac user.

He had quite a few observations about the leadership style of Jobs.  He asked me if I knew the MobileMe story, when Steve Jobs let the team “have it” for their failures.  I did know the story.  (I forget where I first read it.  You can read about it here).  Here’s the key part of the story:

Jobs asked his team what MobileMe was supposed to do. Upon receiving an answer he quickly fired back, “So why the f*** doesn’t it do that?”

This astute observer then said this about Jobs:

“Steve Jobs was the greatest advocate for the customer I have ever seen in a business leader.” 

That may be IT!the insight about what made Steve Jobs great.  As a business leader, Steve Jobs cared about, was passionate about!, was demanding for, the customer and the customer’s experience.  He cared that his products made the life of the customer better, and easier.  And his products do exactly that.

And though he was hard to work with/for, this was his motivation.  From the Isaacson book:

Business Week asked him why he treated employees so harshly, Jobs said it made the company better. 

In other words, according to the insight of this Tuesday night participant, Jobs wanted to make the company better in order to make the customer experience better.  He was hard on his employees in his role as advocate for the customer.  

This is the insight of the year! 

This brings a real clarity to my understanding of Steve Jobs, and to business success in general.  You have to care for the customer.  You have to be an advocate for the customer, all the time.  Because, without the customer — without a happy, genuinely satisfied customer — your days are truly numbered as a business.


You can purchase my synopsis of Steve Jobs, with audio + handout, at our companion web site, 15minutebusinessbooks.com.

Seven Lessons from the book Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

Last Friday, I presented my synopsis of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson.  At our monthly First Friday Book Synopsis event, we aim to finish our synopses in 15 minutes.  I missed it this time – going almost 20 minutes.  It was not easy to present this terrific book in such a short time.

I loved the book!

The book is a thorough, flowing narrative of the life and business career of Steve Jobs.  It reveals so much about the culture he grew up in, with a great look at the struggles –the very personal struggles – of a man who never knew his biological father, and only later came to know other members of his “birth family.”  (He loved his adoptive parents!).

Thus, one of Isaacson’s key observations is this:  Steve Jobs always felt
Abandoned. Chosen. Special.”

I want to encourage you to read the book.  And, whether you read it or not, I encourage you to order my synopsis of the book.  (It will be available soon, with handout + audio, on our companion web site, 15minutebusinessbooks.com).  I prepared a comprehensive 10+ page handout that has many of my favorite quotes from the book.  But, trust me, you need to read the book – slowly! — to get the full story.

I learned plenty about the genius of Steve Jobs.  He cared deeply about ease of use, simplicity of design, producing good, usable products for the  “regular person” (the “non-techie”).  After I finished reading the book, I tried to come up with the “lessons” – the “business lessons” — to take away from the book.  Here’s my list of seven (it could have been much longer):

1)  Care about the product, not about the money.  The money must – must! — be the by-product, not the focus.
2)  Everything matters.  Everything.  Including what no one can see.  Insanely great cuts no corners!
3)  Do few things.  Do them really well.
4)  Absolute control.  Because such control created consistent quality.  (No “crap”!)
5)  Don’t ship junk!
6) The customer does not know what he/she wants “until we’ve shown them”…
7)  Build a team of A Players – Keep them A PlayersNon-A Players create more non-A players.  (They drag people down…)  A Players are genuinely, truly critical.

Now, putting these lessons into practice will take some work.  If you’re like me, you have some serious work to do…

Here is the January, 2012 New York Times Hardcover Business Books Best Sellers List (Steve Jobs at #1)

Steve Jobs is at the top of the list

Here is the January, 2012 New York Times Hardcover Business Books Best Sellers list.  I just presented my synopsis of Isaacson’s Steve Jobs (#1) at the January First Friday Book Synopsis; and Great by Choice (#5), and Switch (#11) at earlier gatherings of the First Friday Book Synopsis.  My colleague Karl Krayer has presented Strengths-Based Leadership (# 13) and Delivering Happiness (#15) at our event.  And I have presented Boomerang (#3) and That Used to Be Us (#7) for a client at the client’s gatherings.

Maybe we need to take a good look at #2, Thinking Fast and Slow, #4, Back to Work (by Bill Clinton), and #14, Lean Startup, for future selections.  These books have been on our radar.

Some of the others sound like interesting books, but don’t quite fit into the “type” of book we select to present.  (Although, companies do ask us up to prepare and present synopses of books that they feel would be valuable for their purposes).

You can purchase many of our synopses of past presentations, with audio + handout, from our companion web site, 15minutebusinessbooks.com.  (My synopsis of Steve Jobs will be available soon for purchase).

Here’s the January, 2012 list:


STEVE JOBS, by Walter Isaacson.


THINKING, FAST AND SLOW, by Daniel Kahneman.


BOOMERANG, by Michael Lewis.


BACK TO WORK, by Bill Clinton.


GREAT BY CHOICE, by Jim Collins and Morten T. Hansen.


TIME TO GET TOUGH, by Donald J. Trump.


THAT USED TO BE US, by Thomas L. Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum.


CIVILIZATION, by Niall Ferguson.




CURRENCY WARS, by James Rickards.


SWITCH, by Chip Heath and Dan Heath.




STRENGTHS-BASED LEADERSHIP, by Tom Rath and Barry Conchie.


LEAN STARTUP, by Eric Ries.



What Does Warren Buffett Know That Steve Jobs Didn’t?

I thought it was interesting when Warren Buffett made a major turnaround and chose to invest in a traditional newspaper.  On November 30, Berkshire Hathaway, where Buffett is Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, purchased the Omaha World-Herald Company, publisher of six daily papers in Nebraska and Iowa.  Such a deal is counter to the flow of his investment history, and represents a shift from his position about traditional papers.  In 2009, he stated that “we would not buy them at any price.”  You can read a summary of this transaction from the Wall Street Journal by clicking here, and view expert analysis in a video by clicking here.

There is something that Warren Buffett knows that Steve Jobs did not.  Buffett is one of the richest and most successful investors in business history.

In the Wall Street Journal, L. Gordon Crovitz recalled what Jobs said about the future of newspapers in his column entitled “Steve Jobs and the Future of Newspapers” (October 9, 2011).  Jobs said, “The only problem is that the [Wall Street] Journal is a newspaper and so is printed on newsprint.”  Further, he recalled Jobs saying “Whenever I have the time to pick up the printed version of the newspaper (sic), I wish I could do this all the time, but our lives are not like that any more.”  Crovitz summarized Jobs’ position by writing “he predicted that in five years there would be no more printed newspapers.”

That conversation was in 2006, so Jobs’ deadline has passed.  Sorry – there are still newspapers printed, delivered, purchased, and read in the traditional manner.  Since then, many newspapers have disappeared and many others are in financial trouble.  Some have pushed their emphasis to online editions, and now charge for access.

One of the great supporters of the traditional newspaper remains Donald Graham, the Chairman of the Washington Post Company, who said in a corporate news column in the Wall Street Journal, published on December 3-4, 2011 (p. B3), that he would neither sell nor spinoff the flagship newspaper or any of his company’s core businesses.

There is no question that reading online content from newspaper sites, such as the Huffington Post, is trendy, popular, and convenient.

To be sure, however, there are enough advertisers and enough subscribers to keep many printed versions going.  There are still plenty of people who want to get their paper from the front lawn, get their coffee, get back under the covers, and fold the pages to explore the content.  There are still enough people who spend enough time using digital devices who refuse to carry this mode into their treasured leisure time.  They want to sit in their easy chair, hold a paper, turn it, and even clip out articles of interest to them.  I subscribe to the Dallas Morning News and Wall Street Journal print versions, as well as the Wall Street Journal online edition.  The amount of time I spend with the online edition is about 2% compared with the traditional version.

I don’t think that Warren Buffett throws money away.  Something hit him to invest money in a paper whose weekday circulation has fallen 24% since 2006.   Maybe he wanted a challenge.  Maybe it links to his childhood occupation of delivering the Washington Post to homes in weathly neighborhoods.  I don’t know.  But, I do believe that he knew something about traditional newspapers that Steve Jobs didn’t.  And, for me, I will be under the covers reading my paper and sipping my coffee.  I’ll be digital during the day soon enough.

What do you think?  Let’s talk about it really soon!