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Christian Bason

What can public sector managers learn from Steve Jobs?

By December 21st 2011

This blog has previously been published in the Danish magazine “Monday Morning”.

I have always thought that there are limits to what public sector managers can learn from their private sector colleagues, but after reading the new biography of the late Steve Jobs, Apple’s founder and CEO, I have come to think differently.

In mid-September, I had the unusual experience of seeing a roomful of French central administration department heads being taught innovation by an American computer company. The occasion was a summit meeting on public innovation held by “Bercy”, as the French Ministry of Finance is popularly known. In that context, an Apple European director was invited to talk about the secret behind the California firm’s incredible ability to constantly innovate.

Think about it: The French central administration elite deigning to hear about the experiences of a private American company? The financial crisis must really be hurting the French public sector!

Nonetheless, the assembled appeared to listen attentively to the presentation. At one point the Apple director emphasised the company’s ambition that every new product be “magical and transformative”. In other words, customers must have a totally exceptional impression of what Apple does for them. During the ensuing plenary discussion among the French managers, the man next to me (a British consultant, the only other foreign participant) leaned forward and pointedly said: “Imagine if your services, too, were perceived that way: magical and transformative”.

The room fell silent. One could sense the managers’ pondering. Magical and transformative social assistance? Magical and transformative foreign service? Magical and transformative postal service?

And yet… Well, why not? It’s one thing if a teenager is willing to spend a month’s paper route money on an iPad 2 because it is so delicious (in Apple terminology) that one wants to lick it, but whether it should be magical and transformative to be treated at hospital, go to elementary school or be helped by the job centre is another matter. After all, our public institutions are responsible for a range of more fundamental and at times vital functions. Why isn’t the ambition so high as to make it a transformative experience to be in contact with the institutions that literally matter so much in our lives?

Apple’s founder, Steve Jobs, died shortly after the French conference, and shortly thereafter came Walter Isaacson’s biography of the man. I read it as soon as I could get hold of a copy, with a hidden personal agenda: Would there be other insights from his life or from Apple that could teach us something about innovation in the public sector? There were. Let me give three examples:

First of all, Steve Jobs always put himself in the customer’s place. He was never satisfied with what Apple’s hoards of engineers, designers and developers suggested. There was always something that could be done better to create a better user experience. Luckily, Steve Jobs was in many ways an archetype of the company’s target group: a culturally radical music lover. He insisted that computers and technology should be understandable and usable by ordinary people in everyday situations. That is why he was the first to commercialise the graphical user interface that we today take for a given in all computers, but which Apple still does best. And that is why he insisted that the company’s latest transformative technology, the iPad, should not have a pointer. The most intuitive thing is obviously to use our fingers to navigate the screen.

Secondly, the visionary Jobs made Apple employees tremendously proud of their work. One of his best-known sayings came when, at a company retreat, he invited his staff to join him in “making a dent in the universe”. Not a small ambition, yet one that you could say has been realised by what is today the world’s most valuable company, whose products are found in the hands of millions of people the world over. How many public sector managers have such an ambition?

Thirdly, Steve Jobs created a design-driven organisation. That is, Apple’s very organisational DNA – management structure, development processes, IT infrastructure, work methods, production, logistics and marketing – are put together with the sole goal of ensuring that the customer has a fully integrated experience of Apple’s stores, products, packaging and services such as iTunes and App Store. A central concept in this context is that Apples chief designer, Jonathan Ive, reports directly to the CEO. This means that it is design that guides the business’s decisions; not technology, not the financials, not marketing. The design is, at the end of the day, what the customer experiences. As design and innovation guru Roberto Verganti – a great Jobs admirer – so precisely said, good design is “the creation of meaning”. Apple’s organisation is highly geared to creating a meaningful experience for the user. A magical and transformative experience.

Could a public service organisation hire a “head designer” to report directly to the chief executive? Might it have a chief executive who is personally, deeply engaged in every detail of the concrete service provision, in citizens’ experiences and in inspiring employees to do things they wouldn’t think possible?

Naturally, we in the public sector can never create as elegant and coherent solutions and experiences as does Apple, given the necessity to balance conflicting political requirements, considerations and pressures in a social and institutional world that is all too complex and unpredictable. Nonetheless, I believe we are duty-bound to try, especially since our “business” does not concern something as banal as electronic products, but rather the lives and welfare of people. In this, Steve Job’s insistence that we all deserve a better experience can serve as a pretty relevant guideline.

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