Business Advice, Productivity

Three questions Steve Jobs used to drive success

Martin Kovacs /

Steve Jobs iPhone

Steve Jobs holds up an Apple iPhone at the MacWorld Conference in San Francisco. Source: AP/Paul Sakuma

In seeking to motivate staff, the most simple and direct techniques are often the most effective, allowing leaders to gain perspective and directly address issues that may be hindering success.

Writing at Inc., contributing editor Geoffrey James points to the emphasis Apple co-founder Steve Jobs placed on regularly asking his teams three simple questions, designed to get straight to the point and elicit direct answers.

What isn’t working?

An inability to single out small problems can lead to larger problems further down the track. While pointing out problems may appear counterproductive, leaders who are aware of what isn’t working will have greater perspective when it comes time to making important decisions.

James observes that leaders seldom ask what isn’t working: “One, they’re afraid it will devolve into finger-pointing, and two, focusing on problems rather than solutions tends to depress morale.”

“Jobs cut the knot of this dilemma by calling on an attendee and asking: ‘What’s not working?’, then calling on another and asking: ‘What IS working?’” He writes.

James explains that Jobs would continue with this approach, gaining an understanding of what was going on and using “that perspective to make the best decision”.

Why isn’t it working?

Having a hands-on attitude and delving deeper into the rationale behind why something isn’t working can in turn drive innovation.

James observes that asking why something isn’t working is a question avoided by many leaders as a way of avoiding technical specifics and any associated discussion about who is to blame.

“Steve Jobs realised, though, that constantly asking ‘why’ behind design, production and distribution limitations is what opens the door to constant innovation,” he writes.

“According to one account, Jobs used this question to drive the maligned-at-the-time, but brilliant-in-retrospect, design decision to release the iPhone without a physical keyboard.”

Can you do better?

Asking employees if they can do better effectively empowers them to make their own judgement call on the quality of their work.

“When Jobs asked it, he was implicitly stating that 1) he knew the employee was doing good work, but 2) he would not be satisfied with anything but the employee’s very best work,” James writes.

James observes that the question either inspired employees to commit to the quality of their work or to go back to the drawing board.

Now read: Eight practical leadership tips for fast-growing teams that thrive

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Martin Kovacs

Martin Kovacs is a journalist with experience covering the IT, consumer electronics, retail, finance and energy sectors.

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