4 Micromanagement lessons from Steve Jobs

Throughout his Apple career, Steve Jobs’ aim was to make sure that Apple created simple and elegant products. In its very first brochure, Apple had a headline that read “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”, and it turns out that simple - if unorthodox (unorthodox to other Silicon Valley CEOs) - management techniques helped Jobs to largely achieve his aim.

The great CEO is now gone, sadly. But he has left behind interesting micromanagement lessons – lessons that can educate and inspire the managers of today.

Let’s go through them:

1. You can’t dictate everything and be successful

Steve Jobs’ management style is well documented – he was forward, intense and picky. This isn’t surprising given everything went through him, from the design and launch of a product to the slogans used in Apple’s marketing. But this management style only worked post-2000-Apple because he had a knack for innovation; it came at a cost in the early days.

In Walter Isaac’s Steve Jobs, it’s clear that Jobs’ obsession with dictating was a problem in the early days of Apple. In memos, marketing director Mike Murray captured what it was like. “In my three years at Apple, I’ve never observed so much confusion, fear, and dysfunction as in the past 90 days,” he added “Whether the cause of or because of the dysfunction, Steve Jobs now controls a seemingly impenetrable power base.”

The point is this – you can’t have a say in everything. Jobs’ cost in doing so was that he was ousted from his role as the head of the Macintosh division, because his micromanaging lead to confusion, fear and dysfunction that was affecting the development of the Macintosh.

So the lesson here is that effective delegation is key – you need to trust in your employees and allow them to make key decisions without your dictation.

2. You must be opportunistic

Opportunists adapt their actions to take advantage of opportunities and circumstances. Jobs was an opportunist (some say that he was a visionary; he was probably a combination of both). He wanted to do everything at Apple – and this was one of his only weaknesses. Jobs understood that there were people better suited to certain tasks than he was, sure, but in his early days at Apple and even at NeXT he had a hard time skipping the lower-level jobs in favour of the higher-level jobs. It was only over time that he began to concentrate on what benefited the business the most.

Jobs’ success (which for this point we are defining as Jobs’ return to Apple in 1997) can in part be put down to his opportunism. He saw a gap in the market for computer workstations for higher education and NeXT grew into a huge company, and Apple bought it for $429 million in 1997. Apple saw what it needed after a massive operating loss and Microsoft Windows 95 being a commercial success – somebody that’d jump into ideas and motivate Apple’s workforce which had become disillusioned with the company’s direction.

Here’s the lesson – If you take time away from higher level jobs to do lower level jobs, you are foregoing opportunities that can positively impact the business more. You need to manage whatever’s essential first. You need to concentrate on what’s important always.

3. Overthinking things won’t benefit anybody

In an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme, Ken Segall – the man who helped to come up with Apple’s Think Different advertisement campaign – offered a snapshot into the overthinking mind of Steve Jobs. “When we first launched the iMac, Steve got really intense… micromanaging I suppose.” Segall went on to reveal how Jobs went ballistic over the colour of the iMac keyboard – believing it was the wrong colour of blue for the ad – only to change his mind set completely once the ad had launched.

Jobs’ reaction to what he believed to be a fault with the ad caused the ad agency TBWA\Chiat\Day to panic – thankfully, they held their nerve and the ad launched. But all their hard work had initially gone unnoticed. And despite Jobs praising the ad after it had launched, you can only imagine the frustration Apple workers must have felt – Jobs just couldn’t accept that somebody else had made the right decision.

Here’s the lesson – overthinking inevitably leads to negative thoughts. It does not solve problems and as a manager problem solving is your greatest asset. Don’t overthink things!

4. Bitterness fuels the haters

When HTC unveiled a range of new phones in 2010, Steve Jobs went ballistic. He reportedly told Eric Schmidt, then Google’s CEO, “I want you to stop using our ideas in Android,” and going further he said, “and I will spend every penny of Apple’s $40 billion in the bank to right this wrong.” As you can imagine, this didn’t go down too well with Google or Android’s fans.

Whether or not Google stole ideas from Apple is open to debate, but what isn’t is that Jobs’ actions fuelled his haters. And for Apple, this was not good news – Jobs was Apple and his PR team ended up working overtime to spin stories like this into something positive.

In the grand scheme of things, Jobs’ actions did not adversely affect iPhone sales – today, the iPhone is the most popular smartphone on the planet (it also makes up half of all Apple’s revenue) – but his actions won’t be finding a way into Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People anytime soon.

Here’s the lesson – the people you manage, and the people who manage you, should all be treated with the same courtesy and respect. If somebody does something wrong, the action you take should leave no room for misinterpretation. The simple truth is that if you are bitter about the things that affect you and you take them out on other people, you won’t get very far – and you’ll be one of the most hated managers in your company.

Unless you’re Steve Jobs. Which you aren’t.  

Featured image credit: Sip Khoon Tan

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