• An elite within an elite had been created, and the push to finish the iPhone was like an all-out mobilization for war. Engineers used macabre military terminology at Apple to describe the phase of product development when a launch approaches: the death march.  
  • In 2000, Maccoby published an insightful article in the Harvard Business Review that applies Freudian terminology to three categories of executives Maccoby had observed in corporate life. “Erotics” feel a need to be loved, value consensus, and as a result are not natural leaders. These are the people to whom a manager should assign tasks—and then heap praise for a job well done. “Obsessives” are by-the-books tacticians with a knack for making the trains run on time. An efficient head of logistics or bottom-line-oriented spreadsheet jockey is the classic obsessive. The greats of business history, however, are “productive narcissists,” visionary risk takers with a burning desire to “change the world.” Corporate narcissists are charismatic leaders willing to do whatever it takes to win and who couldn’t give a fig about being liked. Steve Jobs was the textbook example of a productive narcissist. An unimpressed Jobs was famous for calling other companies “bozos.” His own executives endured their rides on what one called the “bozo/hero rollercoaster,” often within the same marathon meeting. Jobs brought an artist’s eye to the scientific world of computers. His paranoia built a company that is as secretive as the Central Intelligence Agency. Jobs, perhaps more than any other businessperson of the last century, created the future others couldn’t see. The way Jobs led is merely the first example (of many) of how Apple’s ways depart from decades of received wisdom on corporate life. In his most recent book, Great by Choice, management expert Jim Collins and his co-author Morten T. Hansen hold up Microsoft rather than Apple as the model of a company that delivers outstanding returns to shareholders. 

  • Apple employees know something big is afoot when the carpenters appear in their office building. New walls are quickly erected. Doors are added and new security protocols put into place. Windows that once were transparent are now frosted. Other rooms have no windows at all. These are called lockdown rooms: No information goes in or out without a reason.

  • Tucked away in a walled-off section of the creative studio of Apple’s main marketing building is a room devoted to packaging. Compared with weighty and complex tasks such as software design or hardware manufacturing, packaging would be a pedestrian concern at many companies, almost an afterthought. Not at Apple, which devotes tremendous energy and resources to how it wraps its products. The packaging room is so secure that those with access to it need to badge in and out. To fully grasp how seriously Apple executives sweat the small stuff, consider this: For months, a packaging designer was holed up in this room performing the most mundane of tasks—opening boxes. Mundane, perhaps, but also critically important. Inside the covert lab were hundreds of iPod box prototypes. That’s right: hundreds of boxes whose sole function was to give the designersayp the ability to experience the moment when customers picked up and held their new toy for the first time. One after another, the designer created and tested an endless series of arrows, colors, and tapes for a tiny tab designed to show the consumer where to pull back the invisible, full-bleed sticker adhered to the top of the clear iPod box. Getting it just right was this particular designer’s obsession. What’s more, it wasn’t just about one box. The tabs were placed so that when Apple’s factory packed multiple boxes for shipping to retail stores, there was a natural negative space between the boxes that protected and preserved the tab. How a customer opens a box must be one of the last things a typical product designer would consider. Yet for Apple, the inexpensive box merits as much attention as the high-margin electronic device inside. As the last thing customers see before their greatly anticipated device, Apple’s packages are the capstone to a highly honed and exceedingly expensive process. It begins with prototype design, progresses to a collaboration between supply-chain experts who source the components and product managers who coordinate the assembly of hardware and software, and ends with a coordinated marketing, pricing, and retailing plan to get the devices in consumers’ hands.

  • Anticipating how the customer will feel holding a simple white box is merely the culmination of many thousands of details Apple will have thought of along the way. “Attention to detail, to me, symbolizes that you really care about the user, all the way through,” said Deep Nishar, an early Google executive who leads user-interface design for the Web company LinkedIn. Nishar described the reverence some of the designers who work for him have for the box that held their first iPhone. “Do you remember the packaging it came in?” he asked. “Some of them have kept it on their shelves. For the first time in history it was a spring-loaded box. It opened slowly. It continued to evoke that emotion and that feeling of anticipation, that you are about to see something beautiful, something great, something you had been reading about and hearing about, and had watched Steve talk about and demo. That’s the attention to detail, the feeling you want to invoke.” Obsessing over details and bringing a Buddhist level of focus to a narrow assortment of offerings sets Apple apart from its competitors. Buddhism—a faith Jobs studied intensely—teaches that if you are going to prepare a cup of tea, the making of the cup of tea should command all your attention; even this insignificant task should be completed with all the mastery you can bring to it. It’s a seemingly goofy spiritual idea that can pay great dividends in the corporate world. Well-designed products provide their manufacturers with enviable benefits internally and externally. Internally, talent and resources flow to the products that the company does best. Externally, good design subliminally telegraphs to consumers that the manufacturer cares about them. This, in turn, creates a bond between brand and consumer that transcends price points. I can’t wait to get the new iPad versus Which is a better deal, a Kindle or a Nook?

  • The Apple approach to management and talent development is top-down. It begins with an all-knowing CEO aided by a powerful executive team—the “ET,” as it is known throughout the company. “The purpose of the executive team is to coordinate things and set the tone for the company,” Jobs once said. This ten-member group, including the CEO, comprises the heads of product marketing, hardware and software engineering, operations, retail stores, Internet services, and design, all of whom directly have a hand in Apple’s products. They’re joined by the heads of finance and legal.

  • The executive team meets each Monday, with the main action items being a review of Apple’s product plans. It may seem like a typical corporate function, but it’s unusual in the depth of the attention paid to the granular aspects of product development. Because Apple has so few products, the executive team is able to review all of them over the course of two weekly meetings. The company may be top-down, but the executive-team format engenders a system of managing up. Teams throughout the company are in a constant state of preparing their boss or their boss’s boss to present at an executive-team meeting. Indeed, individual groups throughout the company have their own meetings to prepare for the ET and other top-level meetings. (When he ran operations, Tim Cook convened his pre-ET meeting by telephone on Sunday nights.) “Everybody is working toward these Monday presentations,” said Andrew Borovsky, a former Apple designer. “There is executive review of every significant project.”

  • Adherence to this communicate-up/manage-down system explains Apple’s speed and clarity of decision making. “You’re never out of a two-week decision loop,” said one former hardware executive. (Jobs said that if a product discussion wasn’t finished one week, it would be added to the following week’s agenda.)

  • Put these corporate attributes together—clear direction, individual accountability, a sense of urgency, constant feedback, clarity of mission—and you begin to have a sense of Apple’s values. Values may be a squishy topic in the corporate world, a term that’s interchangeable with culture or core beliefs. In the case of Apple, however, being able to assess how deeply ingrained its values are informs the question of how the company will fare without Steve Jobs. After all, Jobs himself agonized over the drift in Apple’s values during the ten-plus years he was in the wilderness at NeXT and Pixar. “What ruined Apple wasn’t growth,” he said in a 1995 interview with the Smithsonian Institution, as he watched his beloved brainchild flailing. “What ruined Apple was values. John Sculley ruined Apple and he ruined it by bringing a set of values to the top of Apple which were corrupt and corrupted some of the top people who were there, drove out some of the ones who were not corruptible, and brought in more corrupt ones and paid themselves collectively tens of millions of dollars and cared more about their own glory and wealth than they did about what built Apple in the first place, which was making great computers for people to use.

  • Mike Janes, a former Apple executive, remembered a more concise Steve-ism on the subject of talent: “A players hire A players, and B players hire C players. We want only A players here.”

  • Jobs enshrined the importance of a small group in an ultra-secret gathering called the “Top 100.” The expression refers to both the group and the meeting, which was held more or less annually when Jobs was well and less consistently when he wasn’t. Jobs described the group alternatively as those he would choose if he were to start the company over again and the people he’d want with him in the proverbial life raft should the good ship Apple sink. Attendance at a Top 100 was a highly coveted and emotionally charged moment in an executive’s career because Jobs doled out invites based on his opinion of the individuals in question rather than their rank. Relatively low-level engineers would attend, because Jobs wanted them there, while certain vice presidents would be excluded. Executives hurt over exclusion were the norm, which is what Jobs expected and even relished.

  • Once ensconced at their exclusive off-site, the Top 100 were treated to a thorough review of Apple’s product plans for the next eighteen months or so. Jobs sat at the front of the room, kicking things off with a presentation that described his vision for the company and then presiding over presentations by other executives. Executives who attended said the presentations were of the caliber of a Steve Jobs keynote, meaning that tremendous effort went into them. “There would be half a dozen presentations a day, each only an hour long,” recalled an executive who attended many Top 100s. “You could really talk about anything in those meetings. You didn’t have to worry about secrecy. You could put everything out on the table: the pros, the cons, all that kind of stuff.”

  • In the case of retail, Apple executives didn’t just look at existing stores for inspiration. They asked themselves: What are the best consumer experiences people have? Hotels in general—and specifically concierges—came up in response again and again, and the concierge became the inspiration for the Genius Bar. They also talked about what turns people off in stores—clutter, bad design, unfriendly or pushy salespeople. The look of the stores shows Apple’s obsession with detail. While each store is distinctive, Apple’s architects work with a limited vocabulary of design elements; only three materials, for instance—wood, glass, and steel—are used for store interiors. That’s how you know you’re in an Apple store regardless of location.

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