It was recently announced that Jony Ive would be leaving Apple. Although he will still lead a design group that will be heavily involved with his former employer, he will no longer be Chief Design Officer. In many ways, it is the end of an era.
However, to read this WSJ piece (paywall) is to see that this transition started some time ago. Jony Ive, it appears, worked best when he was working for someone who was actively encouraging and pushing him to be creative. A peer of sorts. After Steve Jobs untimely death and the beginning of Tim Cook’s reign at Apple, Ive had apparently been becoming more and more disengaged. As the years passed, he was less active in the design process and the business. He would routinely miss important meetings. He had a difficult time working under a CEO who was more focused on operations and efficiency than anything else.
I don’t bring this article up to say Cook or Ive have done a poor job. Apple continues to be tremendously successful and Ive’s designs are likely to go down as some of the best in modern times. Instead, I bring it up to ask if this story is at all surprising. It’s no secret that Apple has increased its operational efficiencies since Cook has been in charge. It has continued to power forward and begun a pivot into services.
At the same time, Apple has not exhibited the same amount of innovative prowess that led them through their triumphant recovery and ascension. Brightly colored iMacs, the revolutionary iPhone, even the iPad — which was quite literally laughed at upon its launch and subsequently created an entirely new product category — these world-bending innovations are no longer what drives the business.
There have been few substantial changes to their products in years. Air Pods and the Apple Watch have done well enough, but they are add-ons at best and entirely inessential. NYU professor Scott Galloway, author of The Four and an ever-present voice in the business world, has often remarked that Apple is now more of a luxury goods company than anything else. As they’ve leaned further into the creation of accessories, one might find that assertion hard to argue with.
When Jony Ive no longer felt driven to create revolutionary products, by both the spirit of collaboration Jobs fostered and the immense pressure he put on his employees, his entire team suffered. The company’s design suffered. Good or bad, there were new priorities under a new leader.
Why should you care?: Leadership matters. While we’re speaking here about the very top of one of the largest companies in the world, this lesson can be applied downstream. All the way to your team, and all the way through every project you participate in. How engaged are we being in our work? How are we showing our cards when it comes to prioritization, and what are we missing?
It can also work upstream. I wonder what might have happened had Ive chosen to drive hard with his priorities, and attempted to push Cook outside of his comfort zone by showcasing how new products could further increase the company’s success, even if they required larger investments that Cook wouldn’t fully support initially. Would we have an Apple Car, or an Apple Television, or a successful version of the HomePod? I suppose we’ll never know.