Organizational

Jobs, Chez-Panisse and the 90% Disease

Sam Frentzel-Beyme Follow Managing Partner & Strategy Director

The Short of It

  • The 90% disease is the belief that a great idea is basically 90% done.
  • Jobs argues that this belief is what actually kills great ideas.
  • It’s only through the constant, and sometimes painful, evolution of great ideas as they collide into various constraints, technical and personal, that any kind of great idea can actually be turned into a great product.

The 1995 documentary Steve Jobs The Lost Interviews has Jobs talking about the disease that he believed Jon Scully was inflicted with. He calls it the 90% disease. It was what he saw as Scully's belief that a great idea is basically 90% done and that the main job of management is to keep repeating the idea to as many people in the organization as possible. The final “great product” is mostly a matter of the initial great idea plus everyone knowing that it’s a great idea.

Jobs argues that this belief is what actually kills great ideas. It’s only through the constant, and sometimes painful, evolution of great ideas as they collide into various constraints, technical and personal, that any kind of great idea can actually be turned into a great product. He uses the example of seeing a couple of normal rocks dropped into a can filled with sand connected to a shaker. The process is loud, messy and difficult to pin down in terms of the precise mechanics that took place within the can, but the final product is a beautifully smooth rock. Transformative products seem so amazingly intuitive because much of the hard work has already been done for the user.

 

That ideas are only the beginning was echoed in another documentary called Ingredients that looked at the local food movement. In one part, there is an interview with Alice Waters of Chez Panisse fame. Her take was that great cooking, the kind of cooking that she wanted to do that captured the excitement of food she experienced while in Paris, was “85% about finding those foodstuffs.”

I personally love this approach to cooking. It’s more than just the idea of what food should look like and taste like, but it is about the quality of what's used. The full flavor of great food is really about finding the best products and then getting out of their way. To Alice, and many restauranteurs like her, it’s not just about who has the most unique dish. It's about finding the most amazing ingredients in terms of quality and taste (and for some restaurants that might even mean doing the farming themselves as well).

This perfectionist approach to the quality of the main ingredients themselves is a great idea, but it is not possible alone. Like Jobs, Alice realized that to produce something great meant that you had to bring enough different people together who cared enough about what the initial great idea could turn into. In other words, 90% of greatness  is the fanatical dedication to a single vision. The easiest part, in a sense, is the vision or the idea itself.

As you build the brand of your organization, you’ll no doubt deal with a number of diverse and overlapping challenges. The details will be overwhelming. The clash in approaches to solutions will seem insurmountable. And the day will never seem to have enough hours in it for you.

But don't worry. If you're trying to build something great. This is exactly how it should be. 

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