Home 3 Key Business Lessons From Steve Jobs: Intuition, Reinvention, Focus

3 Key Business Lessons From Steve Jobs: Intuition, Reinvention, Focus

Over the weekend I finished reading the authorized biography of Steve Jobs,
by Walter Isaacson. It’s a hefty 650 pages and spans the entire life and career of Steve Jobs, the iconic Apple co-founder who sadly passed away a month ago. The biography is well worth reading, I gave the book 5/5 stars. I’ll even say that it should be required reading for technology entrepreneurs and anybody who wants to be a leader in our industry. The biography is a sympathetic one, so don’t expect to read a great deal of criticism about Steve Jobs. Despite that, it’s a well-rounded portrayal of a man destined to be remembered as one of the great product visionaries of our time.

There’s plenty to learn from the biography. Here are three of the main lessons that I took from the book. Each comes from an aspect of Steve Jobs’ own personality, which he managed to instill into his company Apple. (Note: don’t worry, there aren’t any spoilers in this post!)

The unifying theme of the biography was “the creativity that can occur when a feel for both the humanities and the sciences combine in one strong personality.” This was also a central theme in two previous biographies by Isaacson, about Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein.

The Magician Genius

One of the reasons why Steve Jobs was so different and successful was his Buddhist and Zen sensibilities. Jobs traveled to India when he was a young man and the book explains how this led to his key business philosophies. I was particularly taken by the importance of intuition for Steve Jobs.

Jobs is quoted as saying, “I began to realize that an intuitive understanding and consciousness was more significant than abstract thinking and intellectual logical analysis.” He also said that “intuition is a very powerful thing, more powerful than intellect, in my opinion. That’s had a big impact on my work.”

You can see that intuitive sense in Jobs’ incredible ability to foresee – and then design – what users will want next. The iPhone is a great example. The following passage from the book, from 2005 when Apple was looking for the next big thing after the iPod, illustrates how Jobs kept one step ahead of the market. In this case, by thinking about what could eventually usurp the market leading iPod.

“The device that can eat our lunch is the cell phone.” As he explained to the [Apple] board, the digital camera market was being decimated now that phones were equipped with cameras. The same could happen to the iPod, if phone manufacturers started to build music players into them. “Everyone carries a phone, so that could render the iPod unnecessary.”

Later in the book, Isaacson describes how Jobs’ Zen training helped him develop his love of simplicity in design:

He attributed his ability to focus and his love of simplicity to his Zen training. It honed his appreciation for intuition, showed him how to filter out anything that was distracting or unnecessary, and nurtured in him an aesthetic based on minimalism.

I also loved this description of Jobs:

He was, indeed, an example of what the mathematician Mark Kac called a magician genius, someone whose insights come out of the blue and require intuition more than mere mental processing power.

A Metamorphosing Butterfly

Another key learning from this book is how Steve Jobs reinvented both himself and his company many times. According to Mike Markkula, who became a one-third owner of Apple in 1977 and went on to be CEO (1981-83) and Chairman (1985-1997), the legacy of HP was a big influence:

They [Jobs and Markkula, in 1997] spent the rest of the time talking about where Apple should focus in the future. Jobs’s ambition was to build a company that would endure, and he asked Markkula what the formula for that would be. Markkula replied that lasting companies know how to reinvent themselves. Hewlett-Packard had done that repeatedly; it started as an instrument company, then became a calculator company, then a computer company. “Apple has been sidelined by Microsoft in the PC business,” Markkula said. “You’ve got to reinvent the company to do some other thing, like other consumer products or devices. You’ve got to be like a butterfly and have a metamorphosis.” Jobs didn’t say much, but he agreed.

That nugget of wisdom eventually led to the iPod, iTunes, iPhone and everything else that Apple achieved in the ’00s.

As an aside, one of the things I learned from the book was that the iPad idea actually came before the iPhone one. The multi-touch interface was perhaps the biggest innovation in the iPhone and it came from a team developing a prototype tablet. Jobs decided to use it in the iPhone and put Apple’s focus on that product first:

That project [what was to become the iPhone] was far more important [in 2005], so he put the tablet development on hold while the multi-touch interface was adopted for a phone-size screen.

This Steve Jobs quote, in which he references his beloved Bob Dylan, is a nice summary of his reinvention capability:

“That’s what I’ve always tried to do–keep moving. Otherwise, as Dylan says, if you’re not busy being born, you’re busy dying.”


Steve Jobs’ personal intuition helped the company to reinvent itself across many different product lines. Isaacson named seven industries that Jobs revolutionized or reimagined over his career: personal computers, animated movies, music, telephones, tablet computing, digital publishing and retail stores.

Apple achieved all of that because of the focus and decisive leadership provided by Jobs:

One of Jobs’s great strengths was knowing how to focus. “Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do,” he said. “That’s true for companies, and it’s true for products.”

Jobs was ousted from Apple in 1985 in a failed leadership battle with the CEO at the time, John Sculley. In 1997, he returned to Apple and one of my favorite Jobs stories comes from that time. On his return, he reduced Apple’s bloated computer product range from about 40 to just 4. This passage, set in an internal meeting, describes how he did it:

He grabbed a magic marker, padded to a whiteboard, and drew a horizontal and vertical line to make a four-squared chart. “Here’s what we need,” he continued. Atop the two columns he wrote “Consumer” and “Pro”; he labeled the two rows “Desktop” and “Portable.” Their job, he said, was to make four great products, one for each quadrant.

Another part of Jobs’ leadership was creating a remarkable organization chart around him, whereby all of the key decision makers were just one or two steps from Jobs. He also implemented a culture of accountability over the whole company.

Towards the end of his life Jobs even counseled the CEO of Apple’s primary competitor, Larry Page of Google, about focused leadership:

“The main thing I stressed was focus. Figure out what Google wants to be when it grows up.”

What Did You Learn From Steve Jobs’ Bio?

Those are just three of the things that I learned from this biography of Steve Jobs. Although it’s a sympathetic portrayal of Steve Jobs’ life and career, the author Walter Isaacson does point out some of the downsides of these characteristics. Jobs’ drive for focus, for example, often led to callous treatment of his employees.

But we have to accept that Steve Jobs was a unique individual and it’s impossible for anyone else to even come close to being the person he was. The best we can do is learn from what Steve Jobs taught us about product innovation and leading a technology company. If you’re at all interested in those topics, I strongly encourage you to read this biography. If you have already, I’d love to hear your thoughts about it in the comments.

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