What Government Can (and Can’t) Learn from Steve Jobs

Much of his distinctive and personal way of managing is a poor fit for the public sector. But there are some lessons in how he led.
by | October 17, 2011

I miss Steve Jobs, and I never met him. I worked on computers for 20 years before the Macintosh, but I never played on them. In 1984 we got a Mac, and my 4-year-old daughter drew a butterfly in MacPaint. I was hooked.

Steve Jobs' legacy rests on his tenure at Apple, his perspective on customers, and his management and leadership styles. All of these have lessons for government.

First, very few elected or appointed government managers are "present at the creation" as Jobs was at Apple, and none stay as long as he did. Career staff seldom do either. Therefore, few of us will approach Jobs' depth of understanding of the enterprise he ran. As leaders, we should never presume that we do.

What about government's "customers," as so many now refer to recipients of government services? When asked what market research went into the iPad, Jobs replied: "None. It's not the consumers' job to know what they want." That won't fly in government. In his 1996 Harvard Business Review article "Managing Government, Governing Management," Henry Mintzberg brilliantly dissected Al Gore's National Performance Review and its "customer" focus. Mintzberg said it's not that simple: Government relates to people as customers, clients (with long-term relationships), citizens and subjects. When the highway patrolman stops you for speeding, you're not his customer.

Apple keeps its core under wraps, but we know something of Jobs' approach to management. Last May, a lengthy article in Fortune described Apple as "a brutal and unforgiving place, where accountability is strictly enforced, decisions are swift, and communication is articulated clearly from the top." At Apple there are no committees, no sometimes-ambiguous "dotted line" or matrixed responsibilities. "But we've always done it that way" doesn't cut it at Apple. And saying no is as important as saying yes.

Jobs met each Monday with his senior team to review results, strategy and nearly every important ongoing project. On Wednesdays, he held a marketing and communications meeting. The "DRI"—directly responsible individual—for follow-up was always identified. Compare that with former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who is still remembered for his "snowflakes"—myriad memos asking questions, issuing orders—that were never followed up. Rumsfeld could have assigned almost anyone to track his memos, but he never did. There are some simple lessons here.

There is another big technology company whose very different approach to management and innovation fascinates many people in the public sector: Google. As described in Bernard Girard's 2009 book "The Google Way," the company's three equal top managers provide both checks and balances and a wider, more democratic information flow throughout the organization. Peer review is encouraged. Obviously innovation is strongly encouraged. Google has created tools that allow teams and divisions to communicate easily (think wikis, blogs and twitter-like apps).

Google attempts to measure everything, modeling the business and measuring outcomes much like the dashboards we're seeing in state and local governments across America.

Perhaps most unusual, Google encourages employees to spend up to 20 percent of their time on projects not yet approved by the company. This form of employee empowerment would have been anathema to Steve Jobs. And I can't see it spreading to American government agencies either.

My federal-government experience (30 years, 20 of them as a senior executive) says that while government can adopt some tools from both Apple and Google, it can't move too far in either direction: fanatical single vision or letting a thousand flowers bloom.

Why? Perhaps Peter Senge said it best in his 1990 book "The Fifth Discipline": "Gradually I came to realize why business is the locus of innovation in an open society: business has a freedom to experiment missing in the public sector and, often, in nonprofit organizations. It also has a clear ‘bottom line,' so that experiments can be evaluated, at least in principle, by objective criteria."

We're better at evaluating our successes and monitoring our progress (see Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley's StateStat program and its many imitators). But government does not, and must never have, the freedom to fail that inspires corporate innovation. We must insist on smaller, safer steps and on tried and tested innovations, such as those that can be found in the Harvard Kennedy School's Innovations in American Government database.

Ah, but what a leader Steve Jobs was! People called his powers of persuasion "the reality distortion field." Once at Harvard I defined leadership (not management!) as "the communication of the inevitability of success." Steve Jobs personified leadership at its best.

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