Why Apple didn’t crash and burn after Steve Jobs’ death

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Steve Jobs typeface portrait
Apple is made in Steve Jobs' image.
Photo: Dylan Roscover

Ten years after Steve Jobs’ death on this day in 2011, Apple is thriving when many predicted it wouldn’t.

Go back and look at articles published in the wake of his death, and it’s all gloom, gloom, gloom. But a decade on, the company is worth more than $2 trillion, revenues have nearly tripled, the stock is up more than 1,000%, and there’s no end in sight.

Apple’s success has many fathers of course, but one big one is that Jobs’ personality has been deeply embedded into the company and how it does things. It’s called “the routinization of charisma,” and it helps explains why Apple continues to prosper.

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The routinization of charisma

Jobs returned to Apple in 1997 and ran it as CEO until his passing in 2011. During those 14 years, he turned his personality traits into Apple’s 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, Mohammed 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.

The Sematech example

Established in the mid-1980s, Sematech was an organization of 14 U.S. chipmakers that joined together to help the American computer industry catch up with the Japanese in chipmaking technology. It was led by Bob Noyce, a Silicon Valley legend who helped invent the integrated circuit and co-founded 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 organization’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 characterize 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 12-step program. IBM and Walmart are also often cited as examples of companies that successfully routinized their charismatic founders’ ways of doing things.

Perfectionism, prototypes and processes

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. The process is well described in Ken Kocienda’s Creative Selection, a memoir of his time at Apple helping to develop the first iPhone.

In short, Jobs’ 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.

Working Steve Jobs into Apple’s DNA

This system does not, and did not, rely on Jobs alone. He had his input, of course, but so did 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 on an investor note from Kaufman Bros. analyst Shaw Wu a couple of years before Jobs’ death. 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,” Wu 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 around that same time, the company’s innovation comes from the entire organization, especially the executive team. “This management team, along with Steve Jobs, has been responsible for Apple’s product innovation,” Munster wrote.

Jason Snell, former editor of Macworld who now publishes Six Colors, said: “It’s incredibly naïve to look at Apple and assume that it only runs because of Steve Jobs. That’s a fairy tale of incredible proportion. The company runs so well because it has a group of people who have shown they know how to be consistently successful.”

Tim Cook: ‘We’re here to make great products’

In January 2009, during an earnings call with Wall Street analysts, Tim Cook made a fascinating statement about Apple’s philosophy:

We believe that we’re on the face of the earth to make great products, and that’s not changing. We’re constantly focusing on innovating. We believe in the simple, not the complex. We believe that we need to own and control the primary technologies behind the products we make, and participate only in markets where we can make a significant contribution.

We believe in saying no to thousands of projects so that we can really focus on the few that are truly important and meaningful to us. We believe in deep collaboration and cross-pollination of our groups, which allow us to innovate in a way that others cannot.

And frankly, we don’t settle for anything less than excellence in every group in the company, and we have the self-honesty to admit when we’re wrong and the courage to change. And I think, regardless of who is in what job, those values are so embedded in this company that Apple will do extremely well.

It was one of the first detailed public statements Cook made about the company, and it provided some key insights into his thinking.

Breaking down Cook’s statement

Cook’s words stand as an eloquent description of what makes Apple tick. Most remarkably, it sounds an awful lot like the routinization of Jobs’ charisma in action. Cook seems to be describing Jobs’ personality traits, his modus operandi, translated into various business philosophies:

“We’re on the face of the earth to make great products.”

This is quintessential Jobs, the “product guy.” Jobs once said, “You need a very product-oriented culture, even in a technology company. Lots of companies have tons of great engineers and smart people. But ultimately, there needs to be some gravitational force that pulls it all together.”

“We’re constantly focusing on innovating.”

This exemplifies Jobs’ passion for concentrating on revolutionary changes, because they’re the ones that make a dent in the universe. “I’ve always been attracted to the more revolutionary changes,” said Jobs. “I don’t know why. Because they’re harder.”

“We believe in the simple, not the complex.”

Here is Jobs’ long-standing goal to democratize technology, to make it accessible to as many people as possible. Simplifying technology is, of course, deep in Apple’s DNA.

“We believe that we need to own and control the primary technologies behind the products we make.”

Jobs’ abiding belief that Apple needs to control the “whole widget” ensures not only seamless integration, reliability and ease of use, but also that the company can respond in a timely manner to changes in the fast-moving tech industry.

“We believe in saying no to thousands of projects so that we can really focus on the few that are truly important and meaningful to us.”

Jobs’ discipline and focus did more than simply save Apple in 1996 by jettisoning the dozens of unprofitable ideas that were dragging down the company. It also ensured Apple concentrated its energy on the products and projects that would have the most impact.

“We believe in deep collaboration and cross-pollination of our groups.”

This is a description of how Jobs’ A team works. The eclectic group, drawn from different disciplines in the company, feed on one another’s ideas and inspiration. The iPod’s iconic scroll wheel, for example, was first suggested by Phil Schiller, the top advertising guy — not the design group.

“And frankly, we don’t settle for anything less than excellence in every group in the company.”

Here is Jobs’ perfectionism again, which has contributed so much to Apple’s success. Thanks to a refusal to settle for the mediocre, Apple has innovated and succeeded in almost every field it’s entered.

Cook concludes with perhaps the most important point of all: that Jobs’ values and his spirit are now so deeply ingrained in the company culture that Apple functions no matter who is in a particular position:

“And I think, regardless of who is in what job, those values are so embedded in this company that Apple will do extremely well.”

Steve Jobs greatest product

Jobs often talked about his desire to build not just products, but an enduring company.

“Remember, the role models were Hewlett and Packard,” he once said.” Their main achievement was that they built a company. Nobody remembers their first frequency-counter, their first audio oscillator, their first this or that. And they sell so many products now that no one person really symbolizes the company…. And they built a company and they lived that philosophy for 35 or 40 years and that’s why they’re heroes.”

Jobs reiterated this sentiment many times. His greatest product was not the Mac, iPod or iPhone, but Apple itself — a company that would live on and succeed after his death.

And boy, what a product he created.

This post was adapted from Inside Steve’s Brain, my book about the Apple co-founder.