• Don’t Be Trapped By Dogma

    For me, the greatest lesson that Steve Jobs taught is summed up in this statement from his renowned 2005 Stanford Commencement speech: “Don’t be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people’s thinking.”

    Steve, and the companies he built, proved highly resistant to dogma, to other people’s thinking. No one could imagine what someone would want with a personal computer until the Apple II came along. The Macintosh was initially dismissed as a toy. How could Pixar ever think people would sit through a feature-length computer-generated animated film? Who is going to spend all that money on an iPod? The iPhone doesn’t even have 3G! What does an iPad do that my netbook doesn’t?

    Most companies are dogma machines. And dogma can succeed for a while, but at some point dogma becomes brittle, and the companies that hang onto it end up dying off. “No one wants a PDA” was dogma until the Palm Pilot emerged. “Sticky” web portals were dogma before the arrival of Google.

    Dogma isn’t just about what you make, but how you do it. Most companies still operate under an industrial age bureaucratic mindset, born of railroads and mass manufacturing. Entrenched hierarchies prevent them for taking advantage of the speed of change in our uncertain world. The companies that are thriving and shaking things up are those that have upended this approach, opting for nimbleness, small teams, and iterative development. They’re the ones that authentically understand the importance of culture, of values, of a mission that provides real meaning.

    Companies also have to be willing to question their own dogma. Kodak was a great customer-oriented company that dominated photography for over 100 years. But it was unwilling to sacrifice its paper printing business in the face of the digital revolution, and now they’re an also-ran. They were encumbered by dogma.

    Apple, under Jobs, continually remade itself. Macintosh obsoleted the Apple II. Mac OS X severed ties with the original OS. The iPod Nano rendered obsolete what was, at the time, the best selling iPod, the Mini. The iPhone and iPad are the most significant devices in a Post-PC world, and potentially huge threats to the Macintosh line. “Apple Computer” became, simply, “Apple”.

    If there is any dogma that is applicable to business, it’s to give people what they would love, and to not let anything – organizational b.s., laziness, lack of attention to detail, others’ shortsightedness, sunk costs – stand in the way. Apple continually remakes itself, and its products, as it better and better understands how to provide experiences that people love.

    Mourning and rememberance are important and good. But as we move on after his passing, ask yourself, “What dogma am I subject to? What conventional wisdom are people expecting me to uphold? How can I rid myself of these constraints and focus on the actual heart of the matter?” When you stop letting others set your agenda, you will be free.

    There are 4 thoughts on this idea

    1. Mike Houghton

      Thanks for the article. Yesterday after reviewing some wireframes created by a colleague, he was noticeably irritated. As we dug into his frustration during a follow-up conversation, he quoted the very same line from the Stanford commencement address – “Don’t be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people’s thinking.” In essence, our client had challenged aspects of his thinking, and my colleague interpreted the client’s opinion as being mired in dogma. In my opinion, however, my colleague simply has trouble accepting criticism and is much more likely to question the motives of others than he is to question himself.

      I guess this is just adding some emphasis to your point that it’s good for companies (and professionals) to question our own dogma (and by extension, our motives). I consider this a healthy starting point when challenged with disagreement.

    2. Martín Szyszlican

      I agree with the general idea of being open to change, I usually think that if something offers too much resistance, I’m doing it wrong, and I iterate the idea and execution until it’s works softly.

      But when you say companies are still based in mass manufacturing… why would Apple fall outside that category? I don’t mean to underestimate the success of iTunes in making people buy DRM’d songs (BTW whose agenda was that?), but I think the company makes most of their profit with mass manufactured products.

      I think people tend to forget that all of our electronic stuff is made by the hard, repetitive, incredibly alienating work of thousands of factory workers which sometimes don’t seem to appreciate life as much as Steve did, maybe they never heard the speech he have at Stanford, and so the management, instead of encouraging the workers to go after their dreams, decided to put nets bellow the windows to avoid suicides, and to change the contracts to make suicide as a less appealing option. I’m sure you remember about this.

      I don’t know, maybe railroads are still around and we’re making a hard effort to ignore them.

      We can’t all be designers, that’s for sure, but can’t we all be treated with dignity?

      When you say “to give people what they would love”, I don’t think you mean all people, only customers, because they are the ones who have the money to keep the company running. You’re making the factory workers fall outside of the category of people, so they’re not people and they don’t deserve to have what they would love.

      I’m sorry, but I want to stand for this dogma of dignity. I lots of electronics here and I feel guilty of having paid such a low amount of money for them.
      ¿What do others feel about this issues?

    3. PXLated

      Good post Peter – Dogma busting is very hard to do for most.
      Martín – Nice bleeding-heart comment but unless you’re a Chinese peasant scaling the ladder to a better life through a manufacturing job, you know not of what you speak.

    4. AK

      @Martín Szyszlican,

      Agreed. But don’t feel guilty. Act instead. Let’s not forget the workers.


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