Steve Jobs and the Value of Saying No

“I wanted to come and just have chat this morning,” says Steve Jobs, seated onstage for the closing keynote of

The man and his muse.

“I wanted to come and just have chat this morning,” says Steve Jobs, seated onstage for the closing keynote of Apple (AAPL)’s World Wide Developer Conference back in 1997. Mr. Jobs, who officially stepped down from his post last night, had just begun his second tenure as Apple’s CEO. The company’s stock had been dipping below $20 a share for much of that year, and it was clear to Mr. Jobs that someone needed to light a fire under the developers who helped support the Apple ecosystem.

“We get to spend 45 minutes or so together and I want to talk about whatever you want to talk about,” Mr. Jobs told the crowd. Coming from a legendary CEO, known for having things his way, it was a disarmingly humble and open stance. “I have opinions on most things,” he said, drawing a laugh from the crowd. “So I figured if you want to just start asking some questions, we’ll go to some good places.” It’s a turn of phrase that reminds one Mr. Jobs is in fact a Buddhist, raised in the apricot orchards of Silicon Valley.

But the first question was about OpenDoc, a piece of software Apple had just discontinued, and from there, Jobs transformed, becoming the confrontational yet charming executive whose reality distortion field drew standing ovations from developers and journalists alike. “I know some of  you spent a lot time working on something that we put a bullet in the head of. I apologize. I feel your pain. But Apple suffered for several years from lousy engineering management, I have to say it.”

The crowd applauded this bout of honesty, and Mr. Jobs continued. “You look at the farm that’s been created with all these different animals going in different directions and it doesn’t add up. The total is less than the sum of the parts. We had to decide: what are the fundamental directions we’re going in?”

With the gauntlet thrown, Mr. Jobs headed into deeper, metaphysical territory. “The hardest thing is, when you think about focusing, focusing is saying, yes, no, “he said, walking backwards as his argument changed direction, his hands splayed out wide. “Focusing is about saying no. Focusing is about saying no,” he repeated, as scattered applause breaks out.

“You’ve got to say no, no no and when you say no you piss off people and they go talk to the San Jose Mercury and they write a shitty article about you. And it’s really a pisser, because you want to be nice, you don’t want to tell the San Jose Mercury, the person who is telling you this was just asked to leave, or this or that. So you take the lumps, and Apple’s been taking their share of lumps for the last six months. In a very unfair way.”

Jobs was not only reasserting himself, he was setting the stage for the way he would run the company for the next decade and half. He was articulating the essential vision, which he returned to again. “Focus is about saying no. And the result of that focus is going to be some really great products. Where the total is much greater than the sum of the parts.”

Mr. Jobs saw that promise through, delivering products like the iPod, iPhone and iPad which revolutionized the music, mobile and PC industries. All focused on simplicity. All said no to many of the bells and whistles hyped by the competition. With Apple now trading places with Exxon as the most valuable company in the world, the turnaround Jobs dreamed of at this conference has exceeded perhaps even his expectations.

It’s sad to see America’s most famous and talented CEO step down because of illness, but he went out on his terms. He could have easily said yes to another year, and contributed to Apple in ways large and small. But he chose to say no. He chose to leave Apple in the hands of people who could focus and execute to the their full potential, ensuring that over the next decade, Apple will be more than the sum of its parts.

Steve Jobs and the Value of Saying No