You are not Steve Jobs!

Jonathon is a 50-something ex-real estate developer CEO of a sub-Billion dollar healthcare startup. He has no engineering, design, or development background but has just finished his 5th meeting with his head of development where he’s interjected that he doesn’t like the border around the buttons on the homepage (his new priority). Oh, and his daughter doesn’t like the button color.

Yes, his daughter. Yes, the button color. Yes, this is 2016. Yes, this happened a couple months ago.

No, it’s not an episode of Bewitched or an ad agency “war story” just uncovered from 50 years ago.

Jonathan is not Steve Jobs. But, he sure thinks he is.

You’re not either.

Just about every yahoo (reference intended) leading a company today, or even just a department, has read Walter Isaacson’s biography of the unique founder of Apple (or, really, just skimmed it) and the takeaway is: I must make all design decisions because 1) design is incredibly important and 2) every detail must be right and 3) Steve did and 4) I’m CEO, too, so I am qualified.

Let that sink in.

I can tell you this: if you don’t know the difference between additive and subtractive color, you aren’t qualified to make design decisions. If you have never kerned letters, you’re not qualified.

There is a BIG difference between the kind of design that is practiced in “design thinking” (the design process at the heart of design-based innovation) and the various design crafts (which are professions that take skill and experience that people actually get degrees in). Just because you took an IDEO-inspired workshop on design thinking (and have the certificate framed on your office wall and listing on your LinkedIn profile to prove it) doesn’t make you an innovator or a design thinker and certainly doesn’t make you a visual, graphic, industrial, interaction, or any other kind of designer.

Yes, Steve critiqued every aspect of Apple’s products, stores, offices, services, and much more. He would comment on the radius of the edge of an iPhone, the pattern in the wood of the tables in the stores, and yes, the color of buttons. He could also speak with electrical engineers about manufacturing processes and techniques to optimize the layout of chips and motherboards. He could speak to the business model, the global market, and products down to the nanometer. But, like with most things, he was the exception.

Jonathan, above, is a real person. I failed to mention that the sign-up rate of his 20-something customers is terrible because the forms they need for sign-up are broken and the coding is so poor that they can’t even generate meaningful analytics about where and who is failing to complete them. But, engineering resources for the sign-up process have been diverted to the homepage project because …design.

Steve would have never prioritized that way.

But, it’s all OK because they’re using Agile! Only, they’re not. Not really. According to Jonathan, “we’ll fix it on the next rev” because that’s all Agile means to him: push code early and often.

You may not be Jonathan (though one of you actually is and many of you could be) but it’s clear that he isn’t Steve Jobs and faking it until he makes it isn’t going to save his business. Well, OK, he’s not really faking it because he doesn’t realize that he doesn’t know what he thinks he does, let alone that the things he doesn’t know he doesn’t know. And, though he has a capable 20-something designer working on the project, Jonathan won’t listen to him despite the three decades between his upbringing and the digital native experience of his customers. But, he’s the leader so… design.

Leaders like Jonathan have missed the forest for the trees (not to mention the business model for the homepage). They mistake the responsibility to make sure decisions are made by professionals experienced in those areas with the misunderstanding that they’re supposed to be making these decisions themselves. This means that, as a leader, you’re responsible for making sure the customer experience is well designed, produced, tested, and delivered — not to make all of these decisions yourself. And, certainly, not your wife’s (and it’s always a wife, unfortunately). He doesn’t dictate the specs to the engineering team but design is different because, despite the last 40 years, still, everyone is a designer. In fact, everyone is probably more a designer than ever.

Just because you read it (Steve Jobs), doesn’t make it true. Leading by anecdotal Jobsiana is not a recipe for success. Even Steve’s decisions weren’t infallible (his record with cube-shaped anythings wasn’t good) though it was dead-on way more often than not. Again, you’re not him. If you want to try, then at least follow his path a bit: if you don’t have a design background, for God’s sake, at least take a design course before you start directing every design detail from business cards to advertising to headquarters carpet to interface! Even Steve audited a calligraphy course at Reed! In fact, if you only take one design course this year, make it a course in Typography — a microcosm of most every design principle you’ll ever encounter: shape, contrast, legibility, placement, layout, proportion, balance, communication, etc. Otherwise, you’re not even seriously trying to be Steve Jobs, you’re just faking it (and everyone around you likely knows). Then, perhaps, a course in color theory — please — and one for your wife (or husband or your neighbor’s best friend’s dog walker).

Until then, let the professionals be professional and do their jobs. You don’t have to accept their decisions verbatim — question them about what drives that decision. If it doesn’t relate to how customers respond, and if it hasn’t been tested — with customers — it may, in fact, be bullshit. But recognize that their bullshit is still probably more informed than yours.

Steve worked very hard, compelled (in a rarely accurate use of the word) those around him to work just as hard, and was incredibly lucky that his finger was on the pulse of his market at a visceral, instinctive level. If you don’t have that luck, using his tactics will be a more likely road to failure than success — and you may just need to go to school to learn the difference.

Stop trying to be Steve and, instead, try to be something better — hopefully, yourself.