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Posted by  in Career Tips

Happy 2012 from the DARTON GROUP team!  With the recent Steve Jobs biography having been published by Walter Isaacson, we would like to share perspectives with particular relevance to project management professionals.

Steve Jobs and Lessons for Project Managers

If you have not read the biography, Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, we would highly recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about the life of one of the most influential men of our generation. We would specifically point out to those of us in the project management profession that there are many valuable lessons to be learned from this iconic figure (who in my estimation may have been the greatest change agent in the business world ever).

Although widely recognized as a marketing and technology guru, Jobs in my estimation was largely successful because of his project based thought process for running his business and bringing products to market. As a matter of fact, he may be the most transcendent business change agent in terms of an approach to executing projects that ultimately changed not just the business world, but the world we live in.

Make the complex simple

Jobs always spoke about designing his products in terms of what would be the simplest way for the customer to use the product. He was concerned about the customer experience from the get go and everything else revolved around that concept. From his perspective, it was addition through subtraction. He challenged his design and engineering teams to remove complexity and eliminate steps. The elimination of complexity was going on simultaneously at two levels – both from the number of steps required by the consumer to use the product and from the number of components that constituted the actual device (sounds like Lean concept to us). The experience and the technology were seen as two sides of the same coin and not one subjugated to the other. The beauty was in the synergies created by bringing equilibrium between the two.

Jobs saw himself as the critical facilitator between technology and art. “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.” The end result of a project in his eyes was found in the beauty of the simple design and the intuitive nature of its use.  It may sound esoteric in the measured and monitored world of current project methodology, but ultimately a project manager should be an innovator. It takes leadership to help business leaders and teams see through the complex and emphasize the critical/simple desired outcomes desired by the customer.

Focus on the critical few

When Jobs returned to Apple after almost a decade of exile during the 1990’s, he did a walk-through of the company and discovered hundreds of various initiatives underway. He also determined that Apple had lost its way in terms of the quality of the products being developed. Jobs called his board of directors and his most critical managers into a conference room where he drew a simple four quadrant matrix on a white board. The matrix identified two customer groups and two types of product categories. The message was that Apple would focus on four products only and eliminate the hundreds of other initiatives currently underway. Focusing on the few, and emphasizing quality over quantity, positioned Apple to become the company it is today. Jobs said “Be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected.” Any greenbelt is aware of the concept of WIP (work in progress) and we all talk the quality game. However, how many CEO’s actually live by these concepts? Jobs did so as a way of running his company and great project managers do so when running projects.

Ideas become reality through collaboration

Steve Jobs said “I would trade all of my technology for an afternoon with Socrates.” Socratic Method is a form of inquiry and debate between individuals with opposing viewpoints based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to illuminate ideas. This was the culture that Jobs created at Apple as he believed that the best work got done essentially through the active dialogue around ideas between A players that lead to creative solutions. Jobs eliminated PowerPoint presentations because he believed that if you knew your subject you should be able to talk about it without relying on props. He believed that these types of presentations got in the way of real dialogue.

Jobs eliminated the concept of divisions within Apple and built teams around the products being developed with line of sight from concept design straight through to the customer. He went so far as to design the new Apple headquarters complex so that all employees were funneled throughout the day to a centralized atrium. His thought was that people should not be static and apart, but should be dynamic and working together. By physically seeing many other Apple contributors from all disciplines on a daily basis a spirit of collaboration could be achieved. Too often it seems that today’s project manager is conditioned to mechanically move project teams through predetermined steps and checklists as opposed to helping to create an environment for collaboration. As Jobs emphasized, it seems that the greatest works are accomplished through collaboration and in my view the best project managers do so as well.

Wise words for the project manager in all of us

In reading the biography of Steve Jobs, we were most impacted by his weaknesses rather than his strengths. It might be said that in many ways he failed more often than he succeeded. To the largest degree he was an imperfect person both personally and professionally, but at the same time he was self-aware enough to learn from his mistakes. This too is a great lesson for any project manager and any person in general. It may be stating the obvious to say that the best change agents need to be open to change.

The DARTON GROUP team highly recommends the book and we will end with one of our favorite parts of his speech to the graduating class at Stanford University (again a lesson for the project manager in all of us).

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

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