Our friend Leander at Cult of Mac just released the “expanded edition” of his great book, Inside Steve’s Brain. Here’s an excerpt from the new chapters, dealing with Apple’s work ethic in the event of Steve’s departure or death:
The most important difference this time around is that Jobs has turned his personality traits into Apple’s (AAPL) business processes. This process is known as the “routinization of charisma,” a phrase coined by German sociologist Max Weber in a classic study of the sociology of religion.
Weber was interested in what happened to religious movements after the passing of their charismatic founders. Most religions begin with prophetic leaders, such as Jesus Christ, Mohammad or Buddha, who attract followers with their magnetic personalities and, often, their anti-traditional messages. But after those leaders pass, their charisma and message must be “routinized” if the movement is to survive. Their teachings and methods must be institutionalized, becoming the basis of new traditions.
In business, the routinization of charisma is the process of turning a charismatic business leader’s personality traits into a business method. One widely cited study by management experts J. Beyer and L. Browning focused on Sematech, a semiconductor consortium based in Austin, Texas.
Established in the mid-’80s, Sematech was an organisation of 14 US chip makers who joined together to help the American computer industry catch up with the Japanese in chip-making technology. It was led by Bob Noyce, a Silicon Valley legend who had helped invent the integrated circuit and co-founded the chip giant Intel. Sematech had an exceptionally collaborative culture, a feat difficult to achieve among so many rivals in the fiercely competitive chip business. According to Beyer and Browning, the collaborative culture was a direct consequence of Noyce’s exceptionally collaborative and democratic leadership.
Significantly, this ethos survived well after Noyce’s untimely death from heart failure in 1990, because it had become so entrenched in the organisation’s culture. Beyer and Browning concluded that if a leader’s traits become routine, they survive as company traditions. They become so deeply ingrained, they characterise the way a company does business. The “cooperative and democratic practices survive Noyce’s death and still persist,” they wrote of the company.
Other examples studied by academics include Alcoholics Anonymous, whose charismatic founder, Bill Wilson, codified his personal experiences overcoming addiction in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, which lives on as the famous twelve-step program. IBM and Walmart are also often cited as examples of companies that successfully routinized their charismatic founders’ ways of doing things.
At Microsoft, president Steve Ballmer studied Max Weber’s writings before taking the reins from founder Bill Gates. “I went out and I dusted the book back off,” he said. “And you see a lot of great institutions that have managed to routinize after charismatic leaders…You can have great things happen after great leaders, but you’ve got to think about it and be explicit about it.”
At Apple, Jobs’ characteristic traits—his obsessiveness, his focus and his passion for innovation—have been turned into distinct processes that will ensure Apple delivers a steady stream of hit products, with or without him.
Jobs’ perfectionism and attention to detail, for example, have been routinized into the company’s prototyping culture. Where Jobs once used to throw substandard work in people’s faces and call it “shit” until it was done right, Apple’s staff now create and test new products over and over until they meet the highest standards. In short, Jobs’s ceaseless pursuit of perfection has become its own process that is used throughout the company and will continue to be, no matter who is in charge.
The prototyping culture can also help Apple ensure that Jobs’ incredible knack for innovation continues. Products like the iPhone never sprang fully formed from Jobs’ imagination. Rather, they were “discovered” through the creation of hundreds of prototypes. Most of the major products at Apple were started over from scratch when engineers found themselves at the end of a false path. Apple’s prototyping process has turned into a method for fostering innovation as well as quality control.
This is a system that does not rely on Jobs alone. Jobs has his input, of course, but so do his engineers, designers, and programmers—and it’s possible to imagine the process operating just fine without him.
“Steve Jobs‘ spirit has been institutionalized,” wrote AppleInsider, reporting an investor note from analyst Shaw Wu, of Kaufman Bros. According to Wu, Jobs’ spirit and drive has been instilled in thousands of Apple employees, especially the executive team. “We believe Apple today has a deep bench and its culture of innovation and execution or ‘spirit’ has more or less been institutionalized,” he wrote.
Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster made the same point about Apple’s executive team. “While Jobs is the irreplaceable face of Apple,” Munster wrote in an investor note, the company’s innovation comes from the entire organisation, especially the executive team. “This management team, along with Steve Jobs, has been responsible for Apple’s product innovation.”
Excerpted from Inside Steve’s Brain (Expanded Edition). Published by Portfolio. Copyright Leander Kahney, 2009.
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