Steve Jobs' Legacy for Government

What the public sector can learn from the life of the Apple founder.
by | October 13, 2011
 

For those who know me, I'm an Apple evangelist. I am a victim of Steve Jobs' famous reality distortion field: standing in line to buy each new mystical gadget. I owned the first iPod and the first iPhone. I wrote my last book entirely on an iPad. I've used Macs for years and have been a shareholder of Apple for quite a while. Needless to say, Steve Jobs has made my life better.

And whether you own any Apple products, he has made your life better too. His passion, vision and execution have made all of our lives simpler, more productive and, honestly, more enjoyable. As one pundit remarked on TV after Jobs' passing, "he closed the gap between technology and humanity." As technology becomes more integrated into our lives, Steve Jobs showed how that relationship should work. The technology should serve us, not the other way around.

I could go on and on about the wonders of Apple, but my focus for this column is far more specific: What can we as public-sector leaders learn from Steve Jobs? What can we apply to the specific challenges of our industry? We don't make shiny gadgets or deliver entertainment. Our stuff isn't magical or sexy. We can't make a Building Permit Nano or an iLaw. Sadly, we will never get to see the innovative mind of Jobs applied to public-sector challenges (like, well, jobs). I would have loved to see Steve design a DMV office or create a more intuitive approach for filing taxes. But there are four key things you can take away from Steve's legacy that will make your life in the public sector better.

Passion. In a 2007 interview, Jobs was asked about the secret of success. His answer had nothing to do with innovation or sleek design or marketing prowess. Without skipping a beat, he said "passion." "People say you have to have a lot of passion for what you’re doing, and it’s totally true. And the reason is because it’s so hard that if you don’t, any rational person would give up. It’s really hard, and you have to do it over a sustained period of time. So if you don’t love it, if you’re not having fun doing it, and you don’t really love it, you’re gonna give up."

Surely no industry is capable of questioning your sanity like government. With our competing priorities, byzantine procedures, political mudslinging and thankless tasks, you have to be passionate to survive. Our industry demands passion. Passion to protect children. Passion to blow up the foster-care system and build one that works. Passion for the environment, for entrepreneurs, for equality. Whatever your agency's mission may be, you need to lead it with passion. Passion inspires. Passion creates followers. Passion covers up our shortcomings. Jobs was not a perfect man, nor a perfect leader. He was demanding, often abrasive and did not suffer fools. Despite his legendary Apple press events, the truth is that he really wasn't that compelling a presenter or that gifted of a speaker. But what came through in both settings -- to his employees and his customers -- was his passion. He believed he was changing the world, and people were more than happy to jump on board.

Are you that passionate about what you are doing? Do your employees feel it? Do your customers sense it? I'm not saying you should don a black turtleneck and pace around a stage. But what is your equivalent? What is the outlet where your passion is visible to those you serve?

Design. Jobs' passion manifested itself in every detail of what Apple did. He had his hand in everything, from the user interface to the packaging, to the degree of translucence in the display counters at Apple stores. The moral of the story is not to be a micromanager, but rather to be a craftsman. To suffer for your art. Jobs couldn't stand the thought of making things that were crude, inelegant or simply ugly. He wasn't just making widgets, he was making art. He was creating magic. For many Apple customers, this is what the true experience is. You aren't just using a phone, you are holding a piece of modern industrial art. The iPhone 4 is terrible at dropping calls, but it doesn't matter. It looks amazing. It feels amazing. Everything about it just feels right. And that's no accident. Every detail -- from the weight to the texture of the buttons, to the sounds it makes -- has been pored over with the mania of an artist. Compare that to Microsoft's Zune. After the success of the iPod, Microsoft knew it needed to create its own MP3 player. What Microsoft created, the Zune, was a technically superior product. It held more songs, handled more functions and cost less than the iPod. The marketplace hated it. Why? It was ugly. For God's sake, it came in brown! (There were other forces that killed the Zune, like the hostage hold of the iTunes store. But the sheer lack of beauty was a major factor.) For Jobs, design was everything. Details mattered. Every detail mattered. Everything the customer touched left an impression and shaped the user experience. The packaging of Apple products is so well done that people watch YouTube videos of other people "unboxing" their new gadget.

Contrast this with the idea that something's "good enough for government work" -- that horrific joke that demoralizes the public servant work ethic. Unfortunately, inside that remark is a kernel of truth. Unlike Apple's gadgets, a lot of government widgets just don't work very well. They are inelegant, cumbersome and baffling. It's not that public-sector employees set out to do this. It's by design. Or rather, the lack of design. Think how government widgets get created: The design comes from the lawmakers, the specs come from the policy shop, the execution from someone in a field office miles away. And nowhere in this process is the customer. Imagine how bad Apple's products would be if the company's board of directors designed them? How awful they would be if the designers never actually used them themselves. The public sector needs to get better at design.

The other reason people saddle us with "good enough for government work" is because they can. As I argued in a different column, government is no different from any other industry with hostage customers. All monopolies tend to act the same way, whether public or private: They are expensive, slow to innovate, and they struggle with customer service. It's not a people problem. Rather, without the grinding wheel of competition, excellence suffers. They lack the incentive or the urgency to strive for perfection that competition brings.

But government doesn't have to act like a monopoly. The surrogate for competition is high expectations. Where can those high expectations come from? Ideally, like with Apple, from your customers. Additionally, like Apple, from the CEO. Apple excelled because of the exacting standards and extraordinarily high expectations of Steve Jobs. He wasn't just the CEO, he also used the products. He wouldn't allow anything less than amazing. You shouldn't either. I'm not saying you have to have Jobsian-like obsession. But at least have the pride of a craftsman, of an artist. The widgets that come out of your agency have your name all over them. How does that make you feel? Would you want to use your agency's widget? Would you really design an office that looks like that? Is that website the best you can do? Just like with Apple, every detail forms an impression. Every form we create, every notice we mail, every phone call we answer is communicating to our customers who we are and what we value. So what are your products saying? What is your brand? As an artist, how does that make you feel?

Simplicity. Arthur C. Clarke said that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." That's what Jobs created: magic. It's truly hard to explain Jobs' gift without actually using one of his products. Perhaps the greatest testament to his impact hit me a couple of years ago. My two-year-old nephew was playing with my iPhone. He had never seen one before. Within seconds he figured out how to unlock it, open the camera app and take my picture. A few more seconds and he was hurling angry birds at stubborn pigs. He was two years old! How could he figure this stuff out? He didn't even read the manual! Apple perfected Jobs' relentless pursuit of simplicity, of elegance. Technology should be intuitive. You shouldn't need a manual. (Have you ever looked at an Apple manual? I haven't in 10 years.) It should just make sense. Swipe to the next item. Pinch to shrink. Tap to view. Simple. Yet behind the simplicity are orders of complexity beyond comprehension. But we as customers never see that complexity. Stuff just works. It's just easy. My first Apple product was a Mac Mini purchased around 2002. Viruses, disk defrags, malware and software updates had ground my PC to a halt. I decided there had to be a better way to live. On a whim I decided to try the Mac, and, still not fully committed, I also ordered a Dell at the same time. The Mac arrived the next day. In less than 15 minutes it was out of the box, running, connected to my network and printer and ready to go. I hardly did a thing. My Dell arrived a week later, took an hour to assemble and never figured out my network. After two days of tech support nightmares, I sent it back, never to return to PC land. Which company does the public sector most resemble?

Jobs' passion for simplicity is one of the most important lessons we can adopt in the public sector. I had the privilege of working for a visionary leader once while I was in the public sector. Like Jobs, he was unburdened by current constraints and only saw what was possible. Also like Jobs, his passion was to simplify. Inheriting a complex agency filled with burdensome customer interactions, he continually pushed the staff to simplify. To make our complexity invisible to the user. Symptoms of our complexity are everywhere. We have forms and applications that are so complicated that entire industries have grown up to help people fill them out. We have phone centers growing like weeds across our agencies to explain to customers what they just got in the mail. We have manuals to explain how to update manuals. There is little we can do to beat back the complexity that is inherent in bureaucracy, laws and regulations. But what we can do is make that complexity invisible to the user. We can assume the burden to make the complex simple to them. Simple is hard. It's easier to put the burden on the customer. It's really easy when the customer is a hostage and has no choice. But the consequence of our complexity is far more significant than saving a few keystrokes. When those in need can't get what they need, we are not fulfilling our promise.

Creating simplicity requires something else Jobs championed: understanding the user. Really understanding the user. Jobs is famous for eschewing surveys and ignoring focus groups. He relied instead on the two best tools for understanding customer behavior: his eyes. You will learn more in 30 minutes of observation than years of focus groups. In my book We Don't Make Widgets, I relayed an anecdote about signs at the DMV. One of the biggest problems DMV offices encounter is that people get in the wrong lines. It's bad enough to wait in line for 45 minutes, but to do it twice is enough to incite violence. The Central Office solution to this conundrum was to create giant signs to hang up on the wall directing people where to go. At a cost of over a million dollars to re-sign 150 offices, it was a major investment. Spend any time in a DMV office and one thing you will quickly notice is that people don't look up. They seem to want to avoid eye contact at all costs. So where was the best place to put the signs? On the floor. For the price of a few pieces of paper and a magic marker, customers magically knew where to go. What can you do to improve your customers' experience? Get out of your office. Go to the touch points. Watch your customers. Try to do what they are trying to do. Fill out the form. Call the 800 number. Find your last six months of rental receipts. Frustrated? Good. Fix it.

Life. The fourth lesson we can learn from Steve Jobs has nothing to do with gadgets, marketing or business at all. Its a lesson about life. What hit me hardest about Jobs' passing was not the realization that I'd have nothing to ask Santa for at Christmas, but that one of the world's richest men and richest minds died at age 56. Despite all the magic he could conjure, he still couldn't beat cancer. He couldn't cheat death. I'm not sure why it hit me so hard, but perhaps it comes back to somethings Jobs said a few years ago in his commencement address at Stanford. Jobs said "Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything -- all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure -- these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart."

To that he added a few other gems you should tape to your mirror: "I wake up every day and ask myself if today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today? And whenever the answer has been 'No' for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something." And: "Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma —--which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary."

Steve Jobs died too early. We all will too. Steve Jobs died doing what he loved. Will you? If this was your last day on earth, would you be doing what you are doing today? Are you living someone else's dogma? Are you doing what you think you should, or what you think you could? Follow your muse. Live your passion. Be a craftsman. And if that craft and that passion is public service than live it spectacularly. Be perfect. Have high expectations. Make things simple, elegant, beautiful. Revel in your creation. Create evangelists. Pay attention to the small stuff. Change the world.

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