At this year’s Sundance film festival, I caught the premiere of JOBS, the widely anticipated Steve Jobs biopic. Aside from the fact that Ashton Kutcher strikes an uncanny resemblance to the Apple co-founder in both looks and mannerisms, what struck me most about the film was that the primary conflict centers on “the innovator’s dilemma,” the classic set of decisions that successful corporate leaders often face, as defined by Innosight co-founder Clay Christensen in his 1997 book.
This focus is remarkable considering how much about the life and career of Jobs was omitted from the narrative. There was almost nothing about his birth parents and his feelings of abandonment, nothing about how he first met Steve Wozniak during high school, almost nothing about his sojourn to India, nothing about his inspirational visit to Xerox PARC, barely one scene about his longtime rivalry with Bill Gates, and almost nothing about his years at NeXT Computer. What’s more, the film ends in 1997 after his triumphant return to the helm of Apple, so the celebrated third act of his career is barely broached.
What the film does show—and in an entertaining and enlightening way—is how Jobs had a unique talent for synthesizing art, technology, business, spirituality and design into a singular worldview, and how the founding of Apple with Woz in his parents’ garage in 1976 represented the birth of a new kind of company.
“Nobody wants to buy a computer,” says Woz, in a moment of doubt. “How does somebody know what they want when they’ve never even seen it?” replies Jobs.
In movies like this one, every great hero requires a fatal flaw as well as a powerful bad guy to go up against. For Jobs, his flaw was his turbo-charged hubris. As for the bad guy, that role is filled by Arthur Rock, the chairman of the Apple board who trips up Jobs’ vision at every turn in the name of steering a professionally managed corporation.
But Rock doesn’t act alone. He corrals the rest of the board and the newly appointed CEO John Sculley to provide the viewer with one of the all-time best examples of the innovator’s dilemma, showing how the best managers are classically trained to unwittingly destroy good companies—and how fast that destruction can happen in the hyperspeed world of technology.
This part of the story is all-too-familiar but director Joshua Michael Stern deftly dramatizes it. After the Apple II became the first truly successful personal computer, Rock and his allies moved to protect it and devote the lion’s share of corporate resources on evolutionary extensions of the product. Meanwhile, Jobs flails about trying to turn the Lisa into the next breakthrough, but he lacks both the resources and the right mix of new features, and the Lisa becomes an over-budget failure.
The conflict really kicks into gear when Jobs forces himself into a leadership role of a small side project known as Macintosh. He manages to create a revolutionary machine, but Sculley and the board undercut him by overpricing it beyond the means of mainstream consumers in the name of protecting profit margins. When Mac sales are lackluster, Rock forces Jobs out of the firm. Then the professionals make quick work of running Apple into the ground.
After the Apple visionary died in 2011, his biographer revealed that the only business book on Jobs’ list of all-time favorites was “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” which he apparently read around the time of his return to Apple. Jobs told Walter Isaacson that he was “deeply influenced” by the book. If you look at his career post-comeback, you can reasonably conclude that Jobs went so far as to solve the dilemma by harnessing the principles of disruptive innovation that Christensen introduced back then.
He did it by stepping away from the treadmill of improving the personal computer, reaching instead into “the consumer’s heart,” as the Jobs character says in the film. The result was a series of disruptive devices that made technology even more personal and catapulted Apple from the brink of insolvency to the world’s most valuable corporation.
Like its protagonist, JOBS has its flaws. The film has received mixed reviews for being heavy-handed, and Woz has jabbed it for putting fictional words in his mouth. But if you’re into contemplating the contours of innovation, this is two hours very well spent.
Evan I. Schwartz is director of storytelling at Innosight.