Steve Jobs’ people philosophy for building a trillion-dollar company

Steve Jobs was brutally honest, hard to please, and not always fun to be around, but one thing we can never take away from him: He had an incredible ability to change his mind when he was wrong.

In 1992, Apple released OpenDoc, an open source framework for office tasks, hoping developers would build tools for users to better collaborate across systems, say Apple Pages and Microsoft Word. Unfortunately, it was clunky, slow to load, and the files were too big. This was in direct opposition to Apple’s philosophy of a smooth user experience — and so Steve scrapped it.

In 2007, when Steve first announced the iPhone, no third-party apps were allowed in the app store — Apple would build them all themselves. One year later, he completely changed his mind, saying third party apps would be the key to the iPhone’s success. He was right. Apple could never have built 2.2 million apps by themselves, and it was much easier to take a cut of the profits.

Even a single customer could change Steve’s mind: In one of his many public email exchanges, a man complained about a Pulitzer-prize winning satirist’s comic app being removed from the store. Steve said: “That was a mistake. [It] will be in the store shortly.” A few days later, it was.

Steve Jobs was as tough as they come, but as long as they had a good idea, anyone, literally anyone, could change Steve’s mind.

While this is a commendable skill, it is not some magical trait of the genius, ever-out-of-reach Steve Jobs — it is the philosophy all of Apple is built around, and it’s the reason it became the most valuable company in the world.

Anyone can embrace this philosophy, and anyone can build their company around it. If you don’t, however, your firm is unlikely to leave a big mark on the world. It will never, as Steve would say, “put a dent in the universe.”

Thankfully, Steve once explained exactly what it looks like when you do this right.

“That Single Shift Is Everything”

In 1991, Steve Jobs was interviewed for a documentary about Joseph Juran, an engineer and early evangelist for quality management. Juran had visited NeXT, the company Steve ran at the time, a couple of times as a consultant.

The interviewer asked Steve what he did differently as a result of Juran’s advice, and Steve’s answer was not only enlightening, it was also a preview of what would happen once he returned to Apple:

In most companies, if you’re new, and you ask, “Why is it done this way?” the answer is, “Because that’s the way we do it here,” or, “Because that’s the way it’s always been done.”

In my opinion, the largest contribution to quality is to approach these “ways of doing things” scientifically, where there is a theory behind why we do them, there is a description of what we do, and, most importantly, there is an opportunity to always question what we do.

This is a radically different approach to business processes than the traditional one — “Because it’s always done this way” — and that single shift is everything, in my opinion, because in that shift is a tremendous, optimistic point of view about the people that work in a company.

It says, “These people are very smart. They’re not pawns. They’re very smart, and if given the opportunity to change and improve, they will. They will improve the processes if there’s a mechanism for it.”

And that optimistic humanism, I find very appealing — and I think we have countless examples that it works.

This is Apple’s true philosophy. This is the reason it became the most valuable company in the world. Not Jobs. Not the iPhone. A belief in the people who work there. That’s “the secret,” and it’s available to anyone building any company ever, if only they dare ask themselves a simple question.

Will You Trust the People You Hire?

At first glance, it may seem funny that Steve answered a question about quality with a philosophical argument about HR, but on second thought, every question is a question about HR — because people are what drives any company.

People. At the end of the day, there is nothing else. Neither in business nor in life. It was only once Steve understood this that he could build Apple into the unstoppable force it is today, and he did it by hiring great people, listening to them when they challenged the status quo, and pushing them to do their best work while trying his best to see a clear path ahead for the company.

Will you trust the people you hire? That is the question. If you don’t, why hire anyone? Trust is a two-way street, but someone must seed it. If you’re the boss, it’s on you to hand out a trust advance. That’s what you’re doing every time you hire someone.

Thankfully, trust advances multiply. Trust ripples through a company, and it creates the relentless spirit of optimism Steve was talking about. It’s “an optimistic point of view about the people that work in a company.”

Without this optimistic point of view, Apple would never have grown to a $2 trillion company, and your company will never cause change on the scale you want it to. It’s not easy to trust people. It takes guts, confidence, and vulnerability, and it takes all of these over and over again.

Most of all, it takes a willingness to open your mind and the courage to change it when you’re wrong. Those you can only find inside yourself, but if you do, they’ll be something we can never take away from you — no matter what happens with your company.