Something Agile Leaders can learn from Steve Jobs

Ok – maybe there are lots of things that Agile Leaders can learn from the  late Steve Jobs, but here is just one particular example.

Focus to bring business value …

Steve JobsIt is reported that when he returned to Apple in 1997 Steve Jobs reduced the number of Apple products from 350 down to just 10.  Why did he do this?  Surely a company would have more chance of penetrating the market with over three hundred products rather than just 10. Well, no.

One of the main values of Scrum is focus.  The creators of Scrum understood that there is only a certain amount of meaningful attention that an individual or a team can apply to a problem in any given time, otherwise the level of noise in the team just increases.  The same is true for organisations also where the cost of maintaining a product or service continues to demand attention long after the product has been created and delivered.

Focus as a cornerstone value for Agile business practice

One of the important things a leader must do in their organisation is to continue to critically appraise which products they want their teams to work on.  I was asked to by a senior manager in an organisation to sit in on their weekly review board and provide some Agile consulting to her and the other attendees.  I made an observation about the number of change projects that they had ongoing.  There were over fifty projects of varying sizes and complexity.  Her comment back to me was “well that’s what’s expected to be done around here”.  We had some more discussions on this point but in short the organisation continues to fail to meet all of its targets and is continually playing catch up on meeting its commitments with its clients.

Why wont leaders change?

There is a fear that prevails in many senior managers that they must be seen to be doing more, yet they will have heard the expression “less is more” but they will continue to respond to their fears rather than the needs of their customers. Customers may not often want more, but they do want quality.  This is why Apple excelled at what they did.  (I use the past tense because I’m sure there are many like me who are waiting to see if the Apple culture of creativity and quality will continue in the absence of one of the most inspired leaders the world has known.)

The solution …

Prioritise.  Again experience informs me that is an often uncomfortable conversation I have with senior managers who believe they want it all and they need it now.  I explain about focus and attention; I talk about sustained pace of the team; I implore on the basis of better quality and motivated teams;  but the justification that I am given is that they don’t want to fall behind the competition; or certain stakeholders will expect these features or changes or some other form of rationalisation that make their demands right.

In short by asking a senior manager to prioritise  I am asking them to take more time to think about where their priorities lie and as a result what they should focus on. But all too often it is easier to to put more pressure on the product delivery teams to deliver more and quicker.  This keeps the managers from making painful choices and having uncomfortable conversations that involve saying no to stakeholders.  This is not leading but passing the buck and the consequence of these types of decisions that put more pressure on the delivery teams is poor quality and as a result poor customer satisfaction.

Conclusion

It makes me wonder what would have happen if Steve Jobs would have allowed his executive team to continue working on over 300 different products.  Would we have ever seen the ipod, ipad, iphone or itunes? And if we did would we have seen lesser versions of these products that would have annoyed us?  In short there is much business sense in focusing our resources on doing a few things well rather than a lot things mediocre. Remember less really is more.

About the Author

Mark Buchan is an Agile consultant  with experience of delivering organisational transformation for his clients.  He has worked with organisations such as Rolls-Royce, Nokia, Bupa and BT.

You can view Mark’s profile on linked-in

You can also follow him on twitter

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *