Three Cardinal Business/Product Management Principles

The Important

  • What is the best way to use X resources
  • Catch the waves on the upswing
  • Do something great

The Quote

At first, I was just going post this Steve Jobs quote as a memorable quote. After going through the process of actually writing it down, I realized there was so much gold there to unpack, I decided to write an article about it.

“Apple is a company that doesn’t have the most resources of everybody in the world, and the way we’ve succeeded is by choosing what horses to ride really carefully, technically. We try to look for these technical vectors that have a future, and are headed up. Technology, different pieces of technology kind of go in cycles. They have their springs, summers, and autumns, then they go to the graveyard of technology. So we try to pick things that are in their springs. If you choose wisely, you can save yourself an enormous amount of work vs trying to do everything. You can really put energy into making those new emerging technologies be great on your platform, rather than just OK, because you are spreading yourself too thin.”

Steve Jobs, D8 Conference, 2010

This quote in response to the question of why Apple cut Flash support off so abruptly. Putting aside whatever anyone feels is the real story behind that decision, Steve’s words are still gold. Let’s unpack a little.

Resources are always finite

Apple is a company that doesn’t have the most resources of everybody in the world, and the way we’ve succeeded is by choosing what horses to ride really carefully, technically

-Steve Jobs

Is any company different? No. No company has infinite resources and all companies diminish their value when they spend resources on bad outcomes. There is always an opportunity cost.

Catch the wave on the upswing

We try to look for these technical vectors that have a future, and are headed up. Technology, different pieces of technology kind of go in cycles. They have their springs, summers, and autumns, then they go to the graveyard of technology. So we try to pick things that are in their springs.

-Steve Jobs

This echos strongly of various technology adoption cycle frameworks, with many being familiar with Geoffrey Moore’s, from “Crossing the Chasm”. Half of success is being in the right market, a rising tide raises all ships….you the reader have heard them all. It is true though, half of success is being in the right market, no point solving a solved problem, when the market is moving somewhere else.

If you are investing a bunch of money in some new big bet, you want, ideally, to be in a market where the tide with raise your ship while you are developing differentiation, leading to extraordinary returns.

Do something great, not everything OK

If you choose wisely, you can save yourself an enormous amount of work vs trying to do everything. You can really put energy into making those new emerging technologies be great on your platform, rather than just OK, because you are spreading yourself too thin

-Steve Jobs

Apart from the dreaded “Peanut Butter” term that all in the product business know, stop to think how much money companies spend “keeping the lights on”, just caring and feeding for code bases already developed. If a company spreads itself thin, and just does “OK”, getting average or bad returns on investment, it then doubles down on hurting future performance because of the tax it now has to pay on the maintenance.

While that is a fundamental reality that every business leader has to be aware of, there is something even more fundamental, which is what sustains the passion of your employees, especially talented employees, over the long run. Doing something that is OK? Not so much. Talented people have options, and passionate people want to invest their energy where they can do something great. You are not here for a long time, you are here for a good time. Why waste your life, and the investment of shareholders/stakeholders, on doing something “OK”? Isn’t there something better you can reach for, in this one precious life you have?

I get it, I get it. We’ve all been there. A mortgage to pay, 529s to invest in, operating costs of a family, and the list goes on. When you are bogged down in that middle part of your life when you are raising a family, all you want is a predictable pay day, to cover all that and keep your partner from having sleepless nights. So, no judgment on my part. I know what that part of life is about. I’ve been there, done that.

Seriously though, if you had a choice, wouldn’t you rather be doing something great? If you are a manager, do you think you are going to keep great people by aiming for “OK”.

In a very small amount of words, Jobs managed to distill three cardinal principles every general manager and every product manager should carry with them:

  • Resources are finite, there is always an opportunity cost
  • Catch technologies when they are on the upswing
  • Do something great

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