For me, the greatest lesson that Steve Jobs taught is summed up in this statement from his renowned 2005 Stanford Commencement speech: “Don’t be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people’s thinking.”
Steve, and the companies he built, proved highly resistant to dogma, to other people’s thinking. No one could imagine what someone would want with a personal computer until the Apple II came along. The Macintosh was initially dismissed as a toy. How could Pixar ever think people would sit through a feature-length computer-generated animated film? Who is going to spend all that money on an iPod? The iPhone doesn’t even have 3G! What does an iPad do that my netbook doesn’t?
Most companies are dogma machines. And dogma can succeed for a while, but at some point dogma becomes brittle, and the companies that hang onto it end up dying off. “No one wants a PDA” was dogma until the Palm Pilot emerged. “Sticky” web portals were dogma before the arrival of Google.
Dogma isn’t just about what you make, but how you do it. Most companies still operate under an industrial age bureaucratic mindset, born of railroads and mass manufacturing. Entrenched hierarchies prevent them for taking advantage of the speed of change in our uncertain world. The companies that are thriving and shaking things up are those that have upended this approach, opting for nimbleness, small teams, and iterative development. They’re the ones that authentically understand the importance of culture, of values, of a mission that provides real meaning.
Companies also have to be willing to question their own dogma. Kodak was a great customer-oriented company that dominated photography for over 100 years. But it was unwilling to sacrifice its paper printing business in the face of the digital revolution, and now they’re an also-ran. They were encumbered by dogma.
Apple, under Jobs, continually remade itself. Macintosh obsoleted the Apple II. Mac OS X severed ties with the original OS. The iPod Nano rendered obsolete what was, at the time, the best selling iPod, the Mini. The iPhone and iPad are the most significant devices in a Post-PC world, and potentially huge threats to the Macintosh line. “Apple Computer” became, simply, “Apple”.
If there is any dogma that is applicable to business, it’s to give people what they would love, and to not let anything – organizational b.s., laziness, lack of attention to detail, others’ shortsightedness, sunk costs – stand in the way. Apple continually remakes itself, and its products, as it better and better understands how to provide experiences that people love.
Mourning and rememberance are important and good. But as we move on after his passing, ask yourself, “What dogma am I subject to? What conventional wisdom are people expecting me to uphold? How can I rid myself of these constraints and focus on the actual heart of the matter?” When you stop letting others set your agenda, you will be free.