In the midst of reading earlier this year Walter Isaacson’s superb biography of Steve Jobs, it may have been easy for someone involved with food manufacturing to wonder how the unique approach of Mr. Jobs could possibly be applied to success in food. After all, what the late Mr. Jobs achieved with the Apple business and its electronic products ranks among the greatest achievements ever in creating products that rule the imagination of consumers. Arguably, Mr. Jobs caused a global revolution. In many ways, it might seem that the Jobs approach, of paying little or no heed to market research aimed at determining what consumers want, is totally contrary to how innovation in food is undertaken. After all, very few, if any, foods may be compared to the astonishing performance of the Macintosh computer, iPod, iPhone or iPad, to name just four of the product successes for which Mr. Jobs’ skills are largely credited.
Readers of the Jobs biography, even those who only know of him from widespread media coverage, may wonder how it is possible to look to this unusual person for even minimal guidance on making food. Of all the people who have been at the forefront of American capitalism, his attitudes toward food probably are themselves as unusual and at variance from normal as anyone’s. The same goes for his approaches to management. From his early teens, he followed diets that were extraordinary for embracing eating extremes, particularly when considered in relation to the Far Eastern religions that also interested him. His strict adherence to vegetarianism at its far-out reaches prompted him to reject all processed foods. He frequently subsisted on a single category of food like fruit, and when he was diagnosed to have cancer he pursued a range of experimental eating practices and regimens that apparently did little to ease his disease-ridden body.
Yet, even after acknowledging that Mr. Jobs probably died having consumed less manufactured foods than any person in the western world, his approach to product development ought not be dismissed for food. Take his rejection of consumer research as a way of developing the best ideas for meeting consumer needs. He prided himself on his ability to improve products in ways that no one even had dreamed about. Instead, he asserted that his products offered consumers something they didn’t know they wanted or needed, introducing products that would quickly become desired. He achieved this in part by secrecy in development and by grasping the potential of new technologies that did not seem initially to have a use. He adapted these to make things that revolutionized how people listen to music, communicate and even read.
Perhaps coming up with a food that no one has ever wanted to eat is not acceptable in food manufacturing. Yet, innovation is embraced by the food industry as the prime driving force to achieve success. Here is where Mr. Jobs’ complete attention to detail ruled, even though it created a tense work environment. That in itself is not wrong if product innovation is going to reach consumers, perhaps not in the way Mr. Jobs wanted but in a manner that helps a company attain targets.
From a beginning in his family’s garage, Mr. Jobs through personal trauma and chaos built Apple into a company that not long after his death had the largest capitalization of any company in the world. And he did that by innovation in products, which is something the food industry talks about incessantly but does not always achieve in even a minimal manner. While not advocating a duplication of the Jobs approach, it‘s hard to dismiss his amazing focus on every aspect of originating and making the product as a mantra also for food manufacturing. Yes, this is an industry he might have scorned, but he still offers it a course to follow to attain food’s real potential.