Last updated: May 12, 2012 1:12 am

Keep it simple

The ad agency executive who worked with Steve Jobs from the mid-1980s tries to explain Apple’s success through one attribute: simplicity

Insanely Simple, by Ken Segall, Portfolio RRP$25.95/£14.99, 240 pages

 

Are there practical lessons for other business leaders to be learnt from the incredible success that Steve Jobs brought to Apple? To judge by the number who have taken to copying the outward trappings of Jobs’ style, plenty seem to think so. Watch the launch of virtually any new technology product or service, for instance, and it is a racing certainty that it has been taken straight from the Apple playbook. Given how Jobs’ own product launches became the business world’s most anticipated events, this sycophantic emulation is understandable.

The Bauhaus-inspired design, with its stripped-down chic and rounded corners, has also become a staple. Even companies that struggle to locate a single aesthetic in their genetic make-up now bow down before the altar of style.

But what about the deeper management lessons from Apple and Jobs? What about the famous temper, the humiliation heaped on hapless underlings, the insistence that Apple’s product development and marketing should revolve around him? Can you cherry-pick parts of Jobs’ personal style or management approach and leave the rest?

In Insanely Simple, Ken Segall, an ad agency executive who worked with Jobs from the mid-1980s, tries to explain Apple’s success through one simple attribute: simplicity itself. By achieving the right Zen-like focus on the small number of things that really matter, he suggests, Jobs was able to achieve remarkable results. And the great thing about simplicity: anyone, in theory, can do it. It’s just a matter of withstanding the world’s habit of complicating even the clearest of ideas.

There is a paradox to this, of course. Explaining the art of simplicity should not require an entire book. Even in a relatively brief 200-odd pages, the message gets repetitive. That said, Segall’s own punchy prose style at least matches the “simple” rubric of his book, making this a brisk tour of what has already become a familiar landscape.

Jobs’ Apple has no standing committees and meetings are kept to the smallest possible groups. Big-company process is shown the door. The crutches that most executives lean on to give them confidence, such as product research or focus groups, are rejected.

The products themselves are also stripped back to their most basic elements – from Jobs’ winnowing of Apple’s product range in the late-1990s to the minimalism applied to even the most trivial elements of engineering and design, there is no place for the unnecessary. Segall also gets inside Apple’s branding and marketing (he claims personal credit for the “i” in its product names) to explain its directness and power.

It is the contrast to the way other companies operate that makes this particularly striking. Having also worked with Intel and Dell, Segall can provide telling counterpoint. Both those companies exhibit big-company processes, from the large meetings at Dell (one of which is attended by 32 people) to the “side issues, over-analyses [and] second-guessing” that comes from Intel’s habit of throwing too many people at a problem.

It is stretching a point, though, to view everything at Apple through the simplicity lens. In trying to reduce everything to his single theme, Segall is also left trying to explain or excuse things that have no place. Jobs’ belligerence is itself subordinated to his theme.

In their first meeting, Jobs has an abrupt response to the proposed advertising he is shown: “The print is really shit.” There is plenty more of this in the book. Segall’s response: “Few of us have the willingness or capacity to be this honest 100 per cent of the time.”

Clearly, it wouldn’t be a good idea for most managers to copy Jobs too closely. If all chief executives dispensed with focus groups and internal committees, insisted on trusting their gut instincts and ripped subordinates apart every time they heard an idea they didn’t like, it’s a fair bet their companies would be more likely to suffer than benefit.

Like an art student seeking to learn from the deceptive simplicity of a Picasso, however, it never hurts to study the masters.

Richard Waters is the FT’s West Coast managing editor

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