Monday, June 28, 2010

Would Steve Jobs have succeeded in 1984?

The opening paragraph of an interview with John Sculley, released the day before the WWDC 2010 keynote:
Fate had a doozy in store for the men—and they were all men—who dumped the famously combative Jobs. The upstart they fired eclipsed them by many magnitudes, as emphasized two weeks ago when Apple passed Microsoft to become the most valuable technology company in the world.
The media loves a good story. There’s nothing that they will jump all over more than a good narrative. Readers naturally gravitate towards them. Good stories also aren’t too complex - whether it’s a simple story in the first place or whether the media takes care of the oversimplification. This one goes like this:  Young, revolutionary Jobs vs. old, stuffy Sculley. The underdog gets fired. He toils in exile until his return and emerges victorious. Sounds like the plot for a Disney movie.

It’s no doubt a big deal, but the wonder hinges on some big assumptions:
Twenty-five years later, of course, canning Jobs seems like obvious folly. Restored to the helm of a floundering Apple in 1997, Jobs is now the most respected CEO on the planet.
Firing Jobs may not have been the visionary move, but it was far from condemned at the time.
The implication throughout the article is that Steve Jobs as CEO in 1984 would have achieved the same wild success that he did more recently as CEO of Apple. The logic is that the reason for Apple’s success is Steve Jobs and Steve Jobs has inherent qualities that make him responsible for that success. So the implication goes, if John Sculley hadn’t fired Steve Jobs in 1984, then Apple would have been equally as successful, earlier.

There are a few issues with these assumptions: First, it's clear that Steve Jobs wasn't the same person in 1997 as he was in 1984. That's a difference no one can ignore.
Second, the Fundamental Attribution Error is a concept in psychology that refers to the human tendency to place too much emphasis on people’s inherent traits when trying to understand why things happen a certain way. If you haven’t heard of it, this article from Eliezer Yudkowsky is worth reading.
The FAE simplifies things, and that’s what our brains like- they want to do the least amount of work possible, which means keeping track of the least amount of things they possibly can. We're inclined to think that Steve Jobs = brilliance = Apple succeeds. In reality, it’s not so simple. A confluence of a large number of factors, many outside the person's control, create any given outcome.

It’s callous to say with such confidence as the article does that Steve Jobs, placed back in the driver’s seat in 1984, would have steered the company to the same calibre of success that he has elevated Apple to more recently. There are so many outside factors and unique circumstances and variables not under his control that all need to align to create a certain outcome. Things have to happen at the right time, the right people have to do the right things and technologies have to emerge at the right time. That alignment is anything but guaranteed in 1984.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, he argues that situations matter much more than we give them credit for. Fooled By Randomness also explores this topic - Taleb writes that in a world ruled by randomness, it’s statistically probable that an outlier event like Steve Jobs’ resurrection of Apple is bound to occur. Taleb would say that Steve Jobs’ rise is simply a black swan that was statistically bound to happen and has everything to do with randomness and situations and nothing to do with inherent traits. However, people see the success and proceed to rationalize the reasons for it - they analyze and look to Steve Jobs’ inherent traits and what he did and didn't do as the keys to the outcome.  For each Steve Jobs, there are thousands, maybe millions of anti-black swans that didn't succeed but have similar characteristics. Things just didn’t align for them the way they did for Jobs.

There’s no way that I can make an accurate assessment of the competing theories without years of study, but as an armchair observer, it's tough to say that Steve Jobs' success was pure chance (and maybe just because of my own human cognitive biases) but I do definitely think that luck and randomness and the confluence of outside factors and situations play a much, much larger role than we give them credit for.


In light of this, what are you to do if you are striving for that kind of success?
First adjust your goals and understand that it's highly probable that as hard as you try to be in control, things are just about guaranteed to not work out exactly the way you want them to. You can't connect the dots looking forward, only looking backward. Second, expose yourself to a lot of different situations that have the potential to create the good kind of randomness that's required.

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