In some respects, what little we know about Jonathan Ive reminds me of the kind of CIO that is now considered out of place in the enterprise: rarely seen and reluctant to speak publicly, obsessed with product details and absolutely certain of his own judgement.
And yet, based on the sprawling, in-depth profile of Apple’s lead designer published recently in the New Yorker, I’ve started to wonder if “Jony” Ive might not be a better role model for IT leaders than his late boss, company co-founder Steve Jobs. While Job epitomizes the in-your-face force of nature that sometimes seems essential to driving real change in an organization or an industry, one of his often overlooked career achievements was doing an end-run around the CIOs he reportedly loathed and driving the consumerization of enterprise IT.
Of course, he couldn’t have done that without the products created by Ive and his team, and the profile by Ian Parker contains a number of quotes that I think might contain some wisdom for CIOs to live by. A designer and the CIO are very different jobs, but if you see IT leadership as helping design better experiences for employees and customers with technology, some of these thoughts should resonate:
“You go from something that you feel very protective of, and you feel great ownership of, and suddenly it’s not yours anymore, and it’s everybody else’s. And it’s a very—I think the word ‘traumatic’ is probably overstated, but it’s a really significant point in time.”
Ive was talking about the launch of the iPhone 6, Apple Pay and the forthcoming Apple Watch, which are obviously on an order of magnitude much higher than the average project overseen by a CIO. However I think IT departments can go through similar angst when they put into production an app, an infrastructure change or other initiative that took months or years of planning. In some cases the reactions can be overly negative and unfair, but rather than be crippled by them, Ive pushes forward with his next project.
“My intuition’s good, but my ability to articulate what I feel was not very good—and remains not very good, frustratingly. And that’s what’s hard, with Steve not being here now.”
There are CIOs who probably wish they had a Steve Jobs-type boss to champion their ideas and provide the executive-level support throughout difficult projects, but as Ive demonstrates, making the business case is a task true leaders need to embrace themselves. It’s about overcoming your weaknesses because your strengths deserve it.
“I can’t emphasize enough: I think there’s something really very special about how practical we are. And you could, depending on your vantage point, describe it perhaps as old-school and traditional, or you could describe it as very effective.”
To many people, Ive is like an artist, coming up with brilliant innovations after periods of contemplation. The New Yorker profile shows a different view: one of a man who encourages collaboration, manages a loyal team and remains laser-focused on what will work in the real world, even if it takes a long time and competitors initially appear to pass you by. If you’re a CIO working the equivalent of your firm’s Apple Watch, in other words, don’t be too worried about the Samsung Galaxy Gears of the world if your project does a better job of serving customers.
“At the risk of sounding terribly sentimental, I do think one of the things that just compel us is that we have this sense that, in some way, by caring, we’re actually serving humanity. People might think it’s a stupid belief, but it’s a goal—it’s a contribution that we can hope we can make, in some small way, to culture.”
This is a guy who creates computers, smartphones and tablets. You could laugh at him, or you could look around at the world you’re doing as a CIO. Can a well-executed ERP project contribute to culture? Can the move to cloud-based infrastructure serve humanity? Why not?
“Years ago, you thought you’d fulfilled your responsibility, as a designer, if you could accurately define the form . . . (Now,) our deliverable just begins with form . . . What we try to do is see beyond our ability to implement, beyond our ability to detail.”
This is an approach to innovation that truly thinks beyond what happens in the studio, the lab (or an IT department) and the day-to-day life of those who take what you develop and run with it.
“Steve used to say to me—and he used to say this a lot—‘Hey, Jony, here’s a dopey idea.’ And sometimes they were: really dopey. Sometimes they were truly dreadful. But sometimes they took the air from the room, and they left us both completely silent. Bold, crazy, magnificent ideas. Or quiet, simple ones which, in their subtlety, their detail, they were utterly profound.”
It’s not hard to pay attention to someone when they sound like a genius. The real work is listening carefully to someone over a long period of time — the good stuff and the less-than-good stuff — and being ready to act upon what matters.