Innovation & Design

Searching Steve Jobs' Brain


A new book aims to offer lessons from Apple's leader, though it doesn't always succeed

Inside Steve's Brain is a great idea for a book. Who wouldn't want to get inside the head of Steve Jobs? After all, he's one of the most successful CEOs working today, the man who returned to an Apple Computer six months away from bankruptcy and, 11 years later, is running an Apple (AAPL) with $24 billion in revenues and invaluable buzz.

The book promises to be an innovation primer, a how-to about the chief executive of a company that regularly tops the BusinessWeek-Boston Consulting Group list of the World's Most Innovative Companies (BusinessWeek, 4/17/08). And as a longtime Apple-watcher, author Leander Kahney seems well-positioned to write it. The problem is, Kahney didn't get "inside Steve's brain"—it appears he didn't even interview Jobs. And that's the first weakness of the book.

Kahney has covered Apple for more than a dozen years, most recently for Wired.com, where he is news editor and author of the Cult of Mac blog, devoted to all things Apple. (I was an editor at Wired magazine but never met or worked with Kahney.) So Kahney knows the company well, and he aims to paint a more nuanced portrait of Jobs than the typical one painting him as a maniacal taskmaster.

He devotes a chapter to each important Jobsian trait—Focus, Despotism, Perfectionism, Elitism, Passion, and Inventive Spirit—filling out each with quotes and anecdotes. Among them, readers will find accounts of the six months Apple designers spent refining the scroll bars of the OS X interface to Jobs' satisfaction, and Jobs' obsession with the "unpacking ritual," when a consumer opens and sets up a new product, a detail of the customer experience with which few CEOs would concern themselves.

Secondhand Sources and Carelessness

In gathering material for the book, Kahney interviewed scores of former Apple employees—including John Sculley, the CEO who fired Jobs; usability guru and former Advanced Technology Group head Donald Norman; and Jim Oliver, one of Jobs' former assistants. Kahney also quotes several current employees anonymously.

But much of Inside Steve's Brain is based on interviews with Jobs or articles about him done by other reporters (from Time, Newsweek, Fortune, BusinessWeek, The New York Times, and other publications) or book authors. For readers, the issue of credit is less important than the fact that if you're interested in Apple, you've probably already read many of the articles and interviews that Kahney uses as raw material.

A second small problem is sloppiness. On page three, for instance, Kahney mentions the launch of the iPhone in June, 2006—one year earlier than the actual launch. And in the chapter celebrating the Jobsian trait of Focus, a list of the things Jobs isn't good at includes "Staying focused." These are both small points—the first is likely a typo rather than a reporting error, and the second a layout error (a list of things Jobs is good at appears on the previous page)—but they suggest a bit more care could have been taken.

A Failure in Lessons

Inside Steve's Brain is described on its dust jacket as "part biography and part leadership guide," and, for Kahney, it is a shift away from the Mac-enthusiast readership he's cultivated through his blog and earlier book The Cult of Mac (No Starch Press, 2006) toward a more business audience. The book seems written for the innovation-obsessed executive hoping to learn from Jobs, and each chapter ends with a box of "Lessons from Steve." These takeaways are intended to help others in business think like Jobs. Ultimately, this is where the book fails to deliver on its promise.

Many of the lessons are obvious—"Study the market and the industry" or "Concentrate on products"—and while some readers might appreciate the reminder, few experienced businesspeople are going to be enlightened.

At the same time, there are lessons you might want to learn that you won't, such as how Jobs knows when he hears a winning idea, or where he gets the courage and confidence to go gallivanting off into entirely new markets—from computers to consumer electronics, to music, to Hollywood, to telecom.

To Ask or Not to Ask?

You won't learn how Jobs' thinking changed between the period after his return, when he canceled hundreds of projects (including the Newton, because "it was a distraction") in order to focus on building easy-to-use computers, and his recent forays into consumer electronics (with the iPod) and telecom (with the iPhone). Was the decision to move away from Apple's core competence based on changes in technology or on Apple's different financial situation?

One lesson from Jobs: "Don't listen to your customers. They don't know what they want." Four chapters later, Kahney offers a contradictory law: "Ask customers. The popular Genius Bar came from customers." If indeed Jobs did reverse his longstanding poor opinion of focus groups, why? Although he trusts his gut when it comes to developing technology products, did he feel the need for more consumer research as Apple moved into retail territory? Is consumer research more valuable for a company entering new markets?

If Inside Steve's Brain had explained how Jobs makes such decisions, it would have been a must-read for executives. And for those who haven't read much previous reporting about Jobs, Kahney's book does deliver a quick read, with lots of colorful anecdotes about this remarkable leader. But it won't get you inside the mind of Steve Jobs. Lesson: You can't judge a book by its cover.

Jessie Scanlon is the senior writer for Innovation Design on BusinessWeek.com.

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