Innovation Expert Reflects on Steve Jobs' Cultural Impact
Professor Jeff DeGraff describes the "visionary synthesizer" as the ultimate systems solutions guy, salesman, and author of compelling second and third acts.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The passing of Apple Inc. Chairman Steve Jobs was mourned by the millions who grew up with Apple products and systems — from computers and iTunes to iPads and the App Store. For most of his adult life, Jobs defined American innovation. For someone like professor Jeff DeGraff, who worked with Apple in the '80s, met Jobs during that time, and now teaches innovation, the icon's death snuffs out a major light in the field. DeGraff — who also founded and runs the Innovatrium, an innovation laboratory and community in Ann Arbor and Atlanta — says Jobs was one of the few real builders of systematic solutions along the lines of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. He wasn't so much an inventor as a "visionary synthesizer," DeGraff says. Here, DeGraff, clinical professor of business administration, reflects on his professional experience with Apple and shares what he feels made Jobs so unique.
What set Steve Jobs apart from other CEOs and technology entrepreneurs? Why this iconic status?
DeGraff: I think three things made Steve Jobs unique. First, he brought design into the vernacular and the discussion about innovation. Apple took existing products and services and added fashion and ease of use. Think back before Apple and what computers were like, or what handheld calculators were like. He changed a lot of that. It's almost like he was destined to do this. He was a design student at Reed College before he dropped out and was obsessed with all of these elements. I met him in the mid-'80s when I was on an advisory group for applied integrated systems for Apple. I remember thinking how well everything was designed. Now we have entire departments built around human factors. Think about how design and the human factor pervade everything now. He will be greatly remembered for that.
Second, he will be remembered as the systematic solutions guy. A lot of people develop interesting gadgets, but very few develop a platform for things like aggregating the entire music industry. Very few people connected the dots like Steve did. The gadgets aren't artifacts that sit on their own. There's a system that surrounds them. The iPad drew on iTunes and added fuel to the app system. This all comes from a problem Apple had in the '80s. They couldn't write enough software to keep up with Microsoft. So Apple created Applenet. It was used to create a system, a closed system, where authorized software developers could get code from Apple to write software. Sound familiar? He built this well before any of the current technology really existed. He did the connecting-the-dots innovation in a way we really haven't seen since Thomas Edison. Edison built power stations to support the light bulbs. That's why you compare Jobs to Edison or Henry Ford. Very few people are such systematic solutions builders.
I think the third reason we're going to remember him is he's the personification of the American idea of a second and a third act. You have to go back to Benjamin Franklin to see something like this. He created the micro-computing revolution, got kicked out of his own company, got involved with NeXt Inc., and that failed. Then he bought a castoff from George Lucas, poured millions into it, appeared to be on the brink of collapse, and then released Toy Story to become the Pixar we all know today. Then he came back to Apple after a couple of CEOs almost ruined the company. In 1997 Apple's stock traded at $7 a share; it was on the death watch. So in this third act he launched the iMac, the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad. At each step he kept adding to this systematic solution.
And here's the part that people forget: He didn't really invent anything. He innovated. There's a big difference between the two. He took the technology that existed and added design and systematic solutions that begat more robust innovations. Apple can't compare to IBM in terms of patents held. But Jobs was amazing at putting things together. He could do what I call "MacGyver experiments." You put 20 things on a table and he would put them together in a way nobody would think of.
How much of his persona, and the company's image, is because of effective advertising and his sales savvy? Apple's ads sell ideas and attitudes as much as products.
DeGraff: Being a salesman kind of goes with the territory. People like Steve Jobs are great salespeople because they never sell. They explain. He really put you in the movie. The advertising campaigns are more like those for Vera Wang or Versace. "Think different." The only thing you can compare it to is Nike's "Just Do It." Steve Jobs was a visionary, but we often use the term the wrong way. Some people are seers. They see. When you're in the presence of them, you know.
Talk about your own experience with Apple and Steve Jobs.
DeGraff: In the '80s, I was a senior executive at Domino's Pizza Inc. and we built our first work bench systems on the Macintosh. Back in 1985 we closed the regional offices and put the regional managers in field. Each day they would report from the field what was needed for their region. People were using fax machines back then but we worked with Apple to use the Macintosh. It sounds ordinary today but it was revolutionary back then. After that Apple put together a small advisory committee to explore what connected computing would mean and I was part of that group. This was long before the Internet. We could see how far out he saw and it's stunning how many things he got right. It was his vision, not ours. We were just guys on the Magical Mystery Tour bus and I was a kid.
Steve Jobs is basically the embodiment of the Baby Boom era — self-authorized behavior, entrepreneurial, do your own thing, stick it to the man. He's the hero of the Boomer generation yet his disciples are the Millennials. Can you think of anybody who's a hero for one generation and the guru of another? I can't think of anyone other than Walt Disney. To me, Steve Jobs defined Silicon Valley. He defined the esprit de corps there and what it came to mean. In some ways it's curious that so many companies there don't embody that. It's rare to find that kind of thought leader even in Silicon Valley. He morphed ideas. If one path closed, he'd open another one. It's a great lesson that innovation is so much about building the bridge as you walk over it, as Ross professor Bob Quinn often says. For an innovation person, Steve Jobs was inspiring. We should all be happy we lived during the time this bright light shined.
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