The year was 2007. Steve Jobs had just introduced the iPhone at MacWorld, in a presentation that people now recall as one of the best product unv
If you watch just a few minutes of the January 2007 presentation, it’s really instructive (also kind of fun). The audience goes nuts over features that we take for granted now, but that were really ground-breaking at the time.
“You had me at scrolling,” one person said.
But, Jobs wasn’t satisfied.
The iPhone Jobs used in the keynote was a prototype. (He actually had 10 of them on stage in case the first one — or nine — didn’t work.) Apple engineers were racing to have the real iPhone ready in time for delivery in June.
However, Jobs wanted a few small changes first. Not-so-little things, like changing the plastic screen on the prototype to glass.
‘You don’t understand’
Jeff Williams, who was Apple’s vice-president of operations at the time (he’s now the chief operating officer), recalled the phone call he received from Jobs about the screen the day after the demo.
Jobs: “I’ve been carrying this thing around and it’s scratched in my pocket. … We need [scratch-resistant] glass.”
Williams: “We’ve been looking at that. I think within three to four years, technology may evolve …”
Jobs: “No, no, no. You don’t understand. When this ships in June, it needs to be glass.”
Williams: “But we’ve tested all the current glass [options] and when you drop it, it breaks, 100 percent of the time.”
Jobs: “I don’t know how we’re going to do it. But when it ships in June, it’s going to be glass.”
As Williams told the story at an event two years ago at a Corning factory in Kentucky, this exchange with Jobs led to a discussion with Wendell Weeks, the CEO of Corning Inc. (The story is getting new attention now after Dave Mark at The Loop wrote about it recently.)
Weeks said Jobs had called him directly with a three word message: “Your glass sucks.”
But, Weeks also revealed that Corning had developed a special type of glass technology that was stuck in research and development, since it didn’t have a practical use or a customer yet, but that might fit the bill.
To cut to the end of the story, Williams says that despite “many months of sheer terror about whether this was gonna work,” every iPhone that shipped on the official launch date in June had a glass screen rather than plastic.
I’m going to allow for the possibility that Williams allowed a bit of drama to creep into this story, given that Jobs is now gone, and that he was telling the story at Corning itself. (Although it’s not too far off from how Jobs’s biographer Walter Isaacson told the story — from a different perspective — in 2011.
But I think we can identify five key lessons from how Jobs was able to throw up his hands just months before the delivery date and add a feature that was both something people didn’t know they wanted yet, but also incredibly difficult to create:
1. He set a clear objective.
It might have seemed like an insane objective, but at least was a clear one.
Jobs didn’t say: “We need to find a way for the iPhone not to scratch,” which could have led to a vibrant internal debate about what the solution would even be. Instead, he said three words: “We need glass.”
2. He cleared obstacles.
You’ll notice in the story above that Jobs talked to Weeks at Corning first. (“Your glass sucks.”) So, Corning knew this wasn’t just a “nice to have” to have feature for Apple. It was a passionate directive from the CEO.
So by the time Williams and Weeks were talking, and a team was coming together to tackle this issue — Jobs had already cleared obstacles for them and found a corporate partner.
3. There was a clear timeframe.
Again, maybe it was an insane timeframe — but there was one. They’d already introduced the iPhone and announced it would be available in June. So the deadline was clear.
4. There was a backup plan.
If things didn’t work out, it was not as if there would be no iPhone; it would just be one with a screen that wasn’t as nice — and maybe a lot of complaints about scratches. Jobs was putting pressure on the team, sure — but not so much pressure that they’d feel like if they didn’t get it done, the whole product would fail.
5. He had the vision.
This one’s the kicker. And it’s why just telling your team to do something that follows lessons 1 through 4 above won’t always work.
It’s that Jobs already had credibility as a kind of soothsayer. Literally nobody was asking for a glass-screened iPhone. Heck, not a single customer had even seen a real iPhone in person yet, except on stage at MacWorld.
But Jobs had that prophetic sight, and that “reality distortion field.” Really, those are just fancy ways of saying he’d convinced people that he was a visionary leader, and so they followed him as if he were one.
I know it’s a bit cyclical. But the key reason why Jobs was able to pull things like this out and make other people follow him was that both they — and he — believed he could.
This article is from Inc.com