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Sunday, October 9, 2011

Steve Jobs wasn't a visionary

I'm afraid I disagree with my friend @markhillary and countless others who have described Steve Jobs as a visionary. See for example Mark's piece Steve Jobs Succeeded Against all the Odds (Huffington Post, 6 October 2011).

If you want a visionary from the billionaire college-drop-out class of 1955, Bill Gates is your man. A computer in every home? A chip in every household device? Computers in schools? Business @ the Speed of Thought? Wiping out polio? Those are the kinds of goal we regard as visionary.

Jobs himself credited Gates' vision. "Bill was really focused on software before almost anybody else had a clue that it was really the software." (WSJ May 2007)


As Horace Dediu (@asymco) points out, Steve Jobs was not a visionary or a futurist. He just built the future, one piece at a time.

On his own account, he didn't even "put the dots together and saw where they led", as Horace (I think mistakenly) claims. The point of the calligraphy story in his Stanford Commencement address [Stanford University, June 2005] is that "you can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future."

Lucy Suchman talks about plans and situated actions. Situated action is "living in the moment", which Buddhism calls mindfulness, and Jobs himself called following your heart. (See PresentationZen). There is no grand plan, simply enormous attention to detail.

What he did connect was people and knowledge. @jonahlehrer says his secret sauce was Consilience. See my post From Convenience to Consilience.

That's not exactly vision. But it has a lot to do with what Gartner calls "ability to execute". After Steve's death, Dan Lyons (responsible for the brilliant and funny FakeSteveJobs blog) asked Woz what he thought was Steve's greatest strength. "Everyone else will say vision, and gosh darn that’s important but that doesn’t go anywhere without operational discipline. ... He organized the company to have good tight controls. Watching everything he could — that is operational excellence." (RealDanLyons, 11 October 2011)

Malcolm Gladwell agrees. "Philanthropy on the scale that Gates practices it represents imagination at its grandest. In contrast, Jobs’s vision, brilliant and perfect as it was, was narrow. He was a tweaker to the last, endlessly refining the same territory he had claimed as a young man." (Steve Jobs Real Genius New Yorker, November 2011) via @ironick


But of course you may disagree. There is always another story.

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