Steve Jobs Was a Lousy Project Manager

I’m halfway through the Steve Jobs biography right now. I must admit, I didn’t really know all that much about Steve Jobs before reading this book.

I now know that among his other roles at Apple and his other companies he was definitely a project manager.

A lousy project manager.

A Culture of Fear

The picture painted in at least the first half of his biography is that of a visionary, charismatic, and extremely driven leader.

Who was also a spoiled brat.

The picture I see painted especially of Apple in the Macintosh days is that of a culture of fear. Jobs argued that by being so tough on his employees (which really meant being insufferable) he would make sure that only “A” players on his team. Maybe there’s some truth to that.

It seems the only employees that lasted at Apple in the Macintosh days were the ones who were confident and mature enough to stand up to Steve. There was even an award given out for the person of the year who is most able to stand up to hom. Now maybe there’s some to the correlation between standing up to Steve Jobs and being an “A” player for the team. But there are also a lot of a players the left the company because they didn’t want to put up with Steve.

A Steve Jobs Project Environment

These are some of the attributes that most struck me about the way that Steve and his project environments were.

Amazing Lack of Trust

It certainly seems like even the people who works close is Steve wouldn’t trust him as far as they could throw him.

Well, perhaps they could trust him to be a superhero when they needed one, but they certainly couldn’t trust him to keep promises to them.

Hogging Credit

Several times in the book stories are relayed where Steve took credit for his team’s ideas. This irks me.

Several employees interviewed for the book told stories about how they would tell Steven about an idea that they had, and he would say it was crap.

Then a week later he would come back and say “I have this great idea” and it would be their idea he said was crap a week ago.

Micromanaged To The Max

Steve micromanaged everything and everyone as far as I could tell. And he was likely to tell you that the work that you were doing was crap.

It certainly seems to me that creativity and pride in your work was primarily about pleasing Steve.

How To Manage Projects Like Steve Jobs

If one were to write a book about how to manage projects like Steve Jobs, it would look something like this.

Step 1 – Be Steve Jobs.
Step 2 – Micromanage and bully your team until a product is produced.

If you are not Steve Jobs to begin with, this management strategy is not going work for you.

Positive Spin

If there’s one thing that I have been able to draw so far out of the book that is positive, it’s the need for project managers to be able to convey a vision to their staff.

And Jobs excelled at that.

His “reality distortion field” is legendary, but unless you have the charisma of a slick preacher and the ability to disregard reality, you are not going to be able to use the reality distortion field.

So what do you think about Steve jobs? Was he a lousy project manager or a great project manager?

Next in series: Steve Jobs Was a Great Project Manager

[image credit: DonkeyHotey]

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Deb Green

WOW. I have not read about Steve Jobs’ approach to managing projects. Communicating vision is important, but why alienate other A team players who don’t want the drama or the micromanagment? Seems to me like this approach is less about the employee fitting in with the company than finding employees who succeed in a particular environment. And that boils down to wasted time, energy, and resources.

Josh Nankivel

It’s a pretty amazing read. Jobs is someone I’m glad I’ve never had to work with from the impression I get from the biography.

I don’t dispute that he was a visionary, very charismatic and able to get people to do what he wanted. I just think there are very few people who could pull off any kind of success with his management style.

Corey McCarren

Intriguing post. I delved into your theory and a lot of people seem to have arrived at the same conclusion that his management style was extraordinarily harsh. I think my favorite part of your post is how you acknowledged that this management style worked very well for Jobs, because he was Jobs. On paper his management style does not work, but somehow for him it did. I would love to read a study on if and how the culture at Apple has changed since the departure of Steve Jobs.

Peter Sperry

This post reminds me of the old Soviet attitude towards capitalism — Yes it was working in the real world but it was totally unworkable in theory and therefor bad practice. Steve Jobs may have led his project teams to more successes than any other tech leader in the past 40 years but he possesed few if any of the qualities of a good program manager, therefor he must have been a bad project manager. The corporate and government landscape is littered with the corpses of failed initiatives led by inspirational team building project managers who cared more about developing their team members than producing high quality results. Apple, Microsoft and Oracle stand out in this environment for the world class products they have successfully brought to market under the leadership of self impressed meglemaniacs with few if any people or project managment skills. Maybe, just maybe; we need to reexamine our definition of a good project manager.

Josh Nankivel

@Cory – thanks, I certainly believe that by the sheer force of his personality he was able to do many great things. You should really check out the biography, I loved the part when Jobs went to lead the Macintosh division and essentially sabotaged the LISA division. The book so far has been like a train wreck I can’t look away from…. My guess is that Jobs gets at least a little better when he comes back to Apple — but I’m not quite there yet.

Josh Nankivel

@Peter – thanks for the comment! I think I could apply the label “Leader” to my criticism and it would be just as valid. My central point is that Jobs could only get away with it because of his other attributes which compensated. I think he was a visionary and probably a genius, but 99% of leaders couldn’t get away with what he did.

Jay Johnson

He definately was a very complex person. The two best words to describe him might be determined and ruthless. And there in lies the hidden danger of a results only workplace. Sure, he got results, but do the ends always justify the means? Thanks for the post Josh.