Geek Igor

Insanely Simple: The Obsession That Drives Apple's Success

20 Oct 2017 on book-notes

I’ve recently read Insanely Simple: The Obsession That Drives Apple Success by Ken Segall. This post summarizes my notes taken while reading the book.

Insanely Simple

Background

Ken Segall is a marketing director who worked with Steve Jobs at Apple and NeXT for 10 years or so. He also worked with Dell, Intel, IBM and other tech companies. In the book he offers a lot of stories on how Apple and Steve Jobs (or Steve) did things. He contrasts it with the other tech companies. They are centered around few topics like think brutal or Think small. The book depicts Steve Jobs as a man devoted to simplicity and it suggests that simplicity is the key ingredient of the Apple’s success.

Key ideas

Simple is not easy

People crave for simplicity and will choose it over complexity given all other things equal. But simplicity is not necessarily the easiest path. It requires hard work, focus and often courage to challenge the status quo.

Simplicity requires both brains and common sense.

Brutal honesty

Simplify the communications as much as possible. Be honest, event if it requires to be brutal. You don’t need to be a prick, but avoid partial truths. This may be uncomfortable at some points (simple is not easy, right?), but it makes a productive relationship.

A simple message with just one key point is the best. Too many points make the message diluted and people will forget them. Do keep in mind that you talk to another humans. Don’t use baroque language or too many words. Prefer a day-to-day casual style. Say a great deal by saying a little.

Be aggressive, but not arrogant. Simple words are the most effective, as sophisticated words seem arrogant. Apple made the arrogance mistake a couple of times. Their most successful competitive ads were not arrogant at all, yet very aggressive — the Mac vs PC series.

Sign only the work you believe in and deliver only your best work

The author gives a story where a couple of his teams created ads to be present to Steve Jobs. The author didn’t like any of ads of one of the teams, but still included them in the presentation. Steve Jobs noticed and asked if he put his B-team on that. The take away here is that if you rely on other people for your project or presentation then make sure you believe in their work. Otherwise you may end up defending something which you have no heart for.

No rarely means impossible. It often means hard or different-that-we-are-used-to. And people are rarely willing to go the extra mile for you. Rely on your common sense. Push your team and your suppliers or find the other way around such obstacles.

Do not deliver mediocre or so-so work. You may need to defend it or have to admit it is crappy. Plan your projects like a war campaign. Make sure there are no gaps, and you have big guns somewhere handy. Think where you may encounter challenges or obstacles and be prepared for that. Be prepared for some criticism and to defend your work. Pick enemies one by one. Gain unfair advantage if needed. And if possible do not let other present your case. You are the best presenter for your own idea.

Small groups of smart people

I find this probably the most important message of this book. If you want an idea to be successful you need a group of smart people working on it. You want the group to be small to avoid complicated processes and decision making / bike shedding.

More people on the project often leads to a worse output and a watered down implementation. Think big, have a grad vision, but work like a small company. Allegedly, Steve Jobs had an allergy to everything enterprise or corporate as he believed the “big” companies are terribly inefficient. Avoid sophisticated hierarchies.

What is super important is to include the ultimate decision maker in the group and keep him or her engaged.

Keep the attendee at the meetings to the minimum. Only essential persons should be present. Avoid inviting people only because of pity or politics (see brutal honesty). Also, do not choreograph the meetings, prefer workshops or focused interactions.

A great example of that rule in action is the Apple ad creation process. Apple have never used focus groups or spend big bucks on a market research. It also kept the decision process super simple (during Steve Jobs time often he approved the ad or not). This resulted in occasional f*ck ups and poor ads, but it consistently produced good, liked and award winning ads. This is in contrast to Intel, Dell or Microsoft. Most of their ads are run through focus groups. The process ensures that an ad is not terrible and that it doesn’t offend anyone. But it doesn’t produce brilliance, just mediocrity.

Time-constrained and focused projects

It is important to set the projects in motion. Too much time often leads to overthinking. Constant pressure is what keeps things moving ahead with purpose.

The author thinks that the perfect project timeline is 3-6 months. Allowing too little time to a project sacrifices quality, but allowing too much invites complexity to the schedule.

Another important thing is to fall in love with the project outcome or goal, not with the process. Processes should be evaluated, simplified, and if possible killed. They are just means to an end.

Simplify and minimize

Minimal is attractive and a simple message is the best one.

Simplicity is as much about grand ideas as it is about saying no. Keep your products focused. First iPod is a great example. It lacked a lot of the features of its competitors. It was focused on a simple experience and only three key features (it is a browser, a phone and an iPod). And people loved it.

The same applies to teams, meetings and communications (see other points in the post).

Go all in

Every decision should be made with a simplicity in mind. Replicating just one aspect is not enough to secure a success. An example of that is a Dell’s ultra-thin laptop. They’ve manage to create it fast (and it wasn’t trivial) by hiring Motorola engineers. Unfortunately, the other aspects of the company culture made it a failure and eventually lead to a shut down. Compare this is with the MacBook Air success.

Stories

Some of the chapters do not offer new themes, but are like case studies. They tie in nicely to the points the author makes through the book.

Think iconic

Chapter 5 presents the story behind think different brand campaign.

Steve Jobs returned to Apple after 9 years in exile. The company was in a poor shape financially and he estimated they have only 8 months ahead before going down. Moreover, the employee morale was low.

Apple wanted to select new ad agency and Steve simplified the process - basically he hired an agency he used to work with.

Instead of cutting costs he decided to bet the company on the new brand campaign think different and on iMac. He simplified the computer product line dramatically. It took 3 months to deliver the campaign and 6 months for the iMac. Both were a huge success.

The author compares this with a Dell brand campaign which was a design by committee. It ended after 6 months as a failure, because various departments couldn’t work together. A single, motivated leader can deliver ambitious projects quickly. As opposed to committees which are slow and more concerned with not offending anyone than with succeeding. Again, involvement of the key decision maker is paramount.

Think human

Steve Jobs cried when he created his first iMovie movie. It was 1999 and he put together a movie of his daughter. It was an inspiration for an ad campaign. The lesson here is that even though Apple has a cool technology it really builds the devices and markets them to the human side. To make a connection with another human you need to speak with a human voice. Also, all humans respond to simplicity. Thanks to that Apple markets to the biggest demographic - the whole human race. Numbers and analytics may be useful (see Moneyball #todo: link), but ultimately you’re selling to human emotions.

Steve Jobs was often regarded as a ruthless tyrant, but that is only a part of the picture. He made mistakes, but he was also a caring human being. Also, he didn’t require more from others than he was requiring from himself.

Three events made Steve more humble: (1) Being kicked out of Apple, (2) Unsuccessful NeXT business, (3) Cancer.

My opinion

The message of simplicity resonates strongly with me. It is definitely not new in the engineering world, e.g. the KISS principle. It is often hard to get right. The book presents how simplicity is important not only in engineering but in all the aspects of running a successful organization.

Steve Jobs is painted as a super positive character and genuinely a good person. Some folks that used to work with him claim otherwise but it is not for me to judge. Definitely, he was the father of Apple’s success and truly an iconic character.

I can highly recommend the book. It is entertaining plus it may give you some new angle on how to simplify some aspects of your work or team.