Tactics of Mistake

Others have written more eloquently than I can about Steve Jobs’s resignation as CEO of Apple. It’s the end of an era, and I can understand why so many of the pieces I’ve read seem like obituaries. On the positive side, most of what’s been said has been nice, bordering on reverential. I hope he feels the love.

The one consistent question I’ve seen in most of the “and what now?” articles is “who will replace him?”. I won’t even bother linking any of these articles, you’ve probably read a bunch of them.

In Gordon Dickson’s novel Tactics of Mistake (1971) — it’s a fun read — Cletus Grahame, the hero, having observed that not even his most gifted students can fill his shoes, trains two of his most gifted lieutenants to (together) replace him on the battlefield. Steve Jobs did a pretty good job making Apple into a company that consistently produced great products, and that was back in 1985 when he picked a poor CEO and was rolled by his own board. Despite this, Apple was hugely successful for another five years, and then pretty damn successful for another few, finally becoming shaky around 1993. (I believe that’s around the time Microsoft’s revenues overtook Apple’s.) Even during its darkest days, Apple still produced some visionary products (like the QuickTake cameras and the Newton Messagepads) and some great products (like the 7300 and 7600 Power Macs, and the Powerbook 1400).

In fact, the single thing Apple failed to do in the “dark years” 1990-95 was say no to internal factions (leading to ill-conceived projects such as QuickDraw 3D, QuickDraw GX, OpenDoc, Copland) and pundits (who managed to convince Apple to license MacOS, produce an incomprehensible Dell-like product line including low-margin products that cannibalized high-margin products, and attempt to develop “enterprise” offerings).

Since his cancer diagnosis in 2003, if not before, Steve Jobs has been building Apple’s organization to survive his departure. We know he hired a top business management guru to build an internal curriculum designed to define and disseminate Apple’s culture and lessons learned.

It’s possible that this plan may be ill-conceived, or suck, or simply fail despite everything. But anyone who assumes that Steve Jobs’s plan for Apple after he leaves is “hey, that guy can do what I do” is assuming Steve Jobs is an idiot. What’s more, I’d suggest that Steve Jobs’s medical leaves have served as test runs for his post-departure plans.

One final observation: it’s clear to me that the timing of his resignation is based on the expectation that Apple’s upcoming product announcements would completely overwhelm any negative perception of Apple following his departure. The fact that Apple’s stock has held steady indicates that this is exactly what the market thinks too.