Mac OS X celebrates its tenth birthday today. The groundbreaking operating system was introduced to the public on March 24, 2001. Mac OS X helped reverse Apple’s fortunes in the desktop PC market, and has underpinned a lot of Apple’s subsequent success. Most importantly, it spawned iOS, which runs today’s iPads and iPhones.
Below is the story of how OS X’s game-changing interface came about. The story gives some insight into corporate creativity at Apple. OS X’s interface started as a side project. But as soon as Steve Jobs got wind of it, it was fast-tracked. Jobs became intimately involved in its development — a scary prospect for the programmers working on it.
There are some great insights throughout the article. One is his abrasive manner, something like a drill sergeant. It seems that he is interested in how people respond to really withering criticism. In one, the interface designer had provided some mockups for a new Mac interface at a retreat where he was pretty much laughed at because the work would be too hard.
Two weeks later [after a presentation on some of his interface ideas] Ratzlaff got a call from Steve Jobs’s assistant. Jobs hadn’t seen the mockups at the off-site—he hadn’t attended—but now he wanted a peek. At the time, Jobs was still conducting his survey of all the product groups. Ratzlaff and his designers were sitting in a conference room waiting for Jobs, when he walked in and immediately called them “a bunch of amateurs.”
“You’re the guys who designed Mac OS, right?” he asked them. They sheepishly nodded yes. “Well, you’re a bunch of idiots.”
Think about that. The head of the company calls a meeting with your group, walks in and calls you names. How would you you respond?
Jobs reeled off all the things he did not like in the about the interface, mostly things that he did not like about Ratzlaff’s area. But Ratzlaff had a key insight: “I figure he’s not going to fire us, because that would’ve happened already,.”
They picked themselves up and began to figure out how to succeed. They stood their ground and fought for their ideas. Jobs had seen the mockups so he knew that these guys could come up with interesting ideas. But he had to know if they would be capable of actually implementing them. How hard would they fight for them, especially if he provided his support? If he gave them a lead, would they fight to get these ideas implemented – which would take a huge amount of work – or fall back into the safety of committees, as so often happens. That is what this meeting was about.
And Jobs was satisfied. For the moment. All the guys knew that they now needed to implement these ideas. They worked for three weeks, at all hours, to make mockups of what they could do. When Jobs looked at the work, he gave them the whole afternoon with him. That is simply a huge amount of time for a head of a company to give to a project that was so young. Jobs’ insight was to realize the huge importance for the company if they got the interface right. This is what people would actually see, not all the great stuff under the hood. Instead of grafting on the old interface – which is what Apple had been doing – he wanted a whole new one.
After an afternoon, he knew it could be done. During this meeting, he told Ratzlaff, “This is the first evidence of three-digit intelligence at Apple I’ve seen yet.”
From idiots to geniuses in 3 short weeks. That is how you respond to the demands of a leader like Jobs.
Not all leadership styles could be the same as Jobs’, nor should they be. But the underlying point for really creative people is this: Nothing less than the very best should be acceptable. How you motivated creative talent to do that may differ but that motivation needs to be there.
I wrote about this when I discussed Edward Tufte. He was talking about the Macintosh and Windows interfaces. He revealed why the design of the Mac was so much better than Windows. I wrote:
Tufte was discussing the different interfaces between the Mac OS and Windows. After going through a lot of the pluses he saw in the Mac and a lot of the minuses in Windows, he stated that the Mac looked like it had been created by one or a small group of people with a single purpose, a single view of how the information should be presented, while Windows looked like it had been done by a committee.
He then said that all the best presentations were this way – a single point of view forcefully pushed onto everyone. Someone in the audience then asked but what happens if your single point of view turns out to be wrong, to not work.
Tufte replied, simply, “You should be fired.” You could almost audibly hear the intake of everyone’s breath. That is exactly what they feared and why they would always want to retreat into committee decisions – they can’t be fired if the committee made the decision.
The creative, the innovative do not really fear failure, often because they are adaptable enough to ‘route around the damage’ quickly enough. They do not usually doubt the mission they are on and are certainly not uncertain about the effects. Read about the development of the Mac. They were going to change the world, no doubt about it. While you can see that there really was a focus of vision, there are also lots of ‘failures’ that had to be fixed. The key was to fail quickly, leaving time to find success.
And permitting committed individuals to find their own way to success rather than rely on committees to fix them.
Jobs’ methods may be abrasive but there is a point. The types of individuals that Jobs is looking for – those who can creatively connected to the single vision needed for success and who are adaptable enough to make that vision a reality – do not respond to his manner by trying to hide in committees. They stand right up, against all outside pressure, and try to find a solution.
And that is why they succeed.