Prof. Ruth McDonald: The Apple Diet – it may be good for your health, but don’t swallow it whole

Last November the Institute of Mental Health celebrated its 5th birthday. A month earlier the death of Steve Jobs, the man who took Apple from a small start-up enterprise to the world’s most valuable company dominated media headlines and popular attention. Jobs wasn’t universally popular (an interviewee quoted in Adam Lashinsky’s recent book ‘Inside Apple’ suggests googling ‘Steve Jobs’ and ‘asshole’ will produce a lot of hits and he’s not kidding!). And the secrets of Apple’s success are… well secrets. Jobs was notoriously secretive about the inside workings of Apple. Harvard Business School’s Davds Yoffie had open access to Apple for 6 months in the early 1990s before Jobs returned to head the company he’d founded. The resulting Apple case study, used as part of numerous MBA and Exec Ed programmes has been rewritten 5 times since its 1992 incarnation. But these rewrites contain no new information about what happens inside Apple, as Jobs denied Yoffie access, when he was back at the helm.

We do know a lot about Apple from outsiders and past employees, as well as from what Jobs himself said publicly. Importantly, Jobs was keen to retain the energy and flexibility of a small start-up company, despite Apple’s growth and was highly critical of anything that smacked of ‘bureaucracy’ (apparently ‘committee’ was a dirty word at Apple).

So what does all of this have to do with the IMH? Well, the Institute has gone from a small ‘start up’ to a multi million pound enterprise in a few years. The challenge of retaining the energy and enthusiasm associated with small ventures is an ever present one. For all its negative connotations ‘bureaucracy’ isn’t entirely a bad thing, as Max Weber pointed out (if you need some convincing, Paul du Gay’s in Praise of Bureaucracy is a great place to start). Yet although, transparent structures and processes, which are independent of individuals (however charismatic) may be desirable, as Robert K. Merton observed many years ago, an emphasis on conformity and adherence to rules, can result in rules becoming an end in themselves. The task for the IMH is to maintain structures and processes which ensure good stewardship of resources and systematic approaches to doing business (even though, at times, these may constrain individuals), whilst at the same time guarding against conformity as an end in itself. The sort of ‘goal displacement’ Merton identified would threaten spontaneity and (calculated) risk taking which appear to be key factors contributing to the success of IMH to date.

As an ex-NHS bureaucrat and an idiosyncratic social science academic, half of my brain can see the advantages of bureaucracy, but the other half would rather I was left alone to do as I like!  Before I suggest that IMH ‘stay hungry, stay foolish’ – Jobs’ mantra gleaned from the Whole Earth Catalogue, reflecting, amongst other things, his dislike and distrust of management ‘wisdom’ from Business Schools and the MBAs they peddle- I should probably acknowledge that Tim Cook, the man chosen by the Board as Jobs’ successor at Apple has an MBA and appears to be feel right at home with spreadsheets, rules and policies. I’d be the last person to suggest that IMH uncritically adopt ‘wisdom’ from Business School academics, but maybe the emphasis for the future should be on staying hungry. In a world where research is adding to knowledge every day, perhaps we should leave the staying foolish to others!   

Posted by:
Professor Ruth McDonald
Chair in Health Innovation and Learning
Business School
University of Nottingham

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One response to “Prof. Ruth McDonald: The Apple Diet – it may be good for your health, but don’t swallow it whole

  1. Pingback: Launch of the IMH Blog | IMH Blog (Nottingham)

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