Jony Ive’s promotion

Yesterday, CEO Tim Cook announced to Apple employees that Jony Ive had a new title and role within the company. The change has been described as a promotion by Apple, but I’ve seen some skepticism about this characterization externally. I have no inside information here, but based on what I’ve seen from Apple and others, I had a slightly different take on what’s going on here.

Freeing up a creative person to be creative

I’ve been an industry analyst for 15 years at this point, and I spent the first 13 years of that time working within a firm of industry analysts. One of the things that I learned during that time was that the best analysts often made the worst managers, and vice versa. It was a rare thing to find a really good analyst who both enjoyed being a manager and was good at it. Why do I mention this? Well, creative work and management take fundamentally different skill sets, and they’re rarely found in the same individual. And yet, the longer we’re in our professions, and the more senior our job titles become, the more likely we are to be placed in roles where part of our job is managing other people.

I see no evidence that Jony Ive is a poor manager, but the reality is that he’s first and foremost a creative person, a designer, and not a manager. By virtue of his longevity and seniority at Apple, he’s ended up managing the design team, but I would suspect that this isn’t how he wants to spend much of his time. Ive can’t simply be off in a room by himself designing things if he’s going to continue to have the lead design role at Apple, but he can be freed up from some of the day-to-day management, delegating a lot of the minutiae to others in the team, and especially to his two lieutenants, Howarth and Dye. This delegation is all the more important given how many new design projects Ive is taking on, in relation to the retail stores, the new campus, and who knows what else. As others have pointed out, the recent profiles of Ive have portrayed a man stretched very thin, and I would guess that, given the choice between yielding some management responsibility versus yielding design projects, he chose the former.

Does this mean he’s staying, or going?

As I mentioned at the top, some have seen these changes as a sign that Ive is moving on. To my mind, there are two possibilities here: either Ive is now going to be rejuvenated by relinquishing some of his responsibilities and will gain a new lease of life, or this represents his last hurrah, with redesigning the stores and designing the campus as his valedictory efforts before moving on. Perhaps even he doesn’t know yet – maybe the change in his role is an attempt by the company to find a way to keep him happy even as he’s feeling the pull back to England and out of a day-to-day role at Apple. And maybe neither Tim Cook nor Jony Ive nor anyone else knows whether this will work yet. But I suspect (and hope) that it means Ive will be free to focus on what he does best – design – and that we’ll get lots more good stuff from him over the coming years.

One quick postscript: I’ve seen a couple of people suggesting this new role for Ive is a sort of Jobs 2.0: consolidating power at the top of Apple. But I think that’s the furthest thing from the truth. Whereas Jobs was the consummate micro-manager, injecting himself into every detail of Apple’s operations, I suspect Ive’s temperament is the opposite. Yes, he obviously cares deeply about every aspect of design at Apple, but in the profiles that have appeared over recent months, it’s become clear how many other people already have a hand in the details of design, and it’s clear that Ive has little interest in management beyond the realm of design. In some ways, Ive is the anti-Jobs, focused on his particular sphere of expertise with little interest in going beyond it.

  • rogifan

    Hmm…I have to disagree with your characterization of Steve. it seems to me he focused on the things most important to him like design and marketing and left other things to Tim Cook. Note that Steve never set foot in China while CEO. He also never visited Apple’s corporate campus in Austin Texas. What Steve had in Tim Cook was someone who would focus on all the things Steve didn’t care to focus on.

  • DrewBear2

    Didn’t Bob Mansfield also relinquish management duties in order to focus on special projects? My sense is Jony is stretched way too thin with the many large projects that demand his creativity. It’s sensible to delegate responsibility.

    It’s also a great opportunity to reward people who have undoubtedly played major roles thus far. Finally, it’s an excellent idea to prepare for succession many years in advance. Just as Williams is being groomed to take Cook’s place, one of the two new SVPs may eventually take Ive’s place.

    Life is uncertain. Maybe Tim & Jony stay with Apple for another decade. Or maybe something happens and they choose to retire in 3, 5 or 7 years. Whatever happens, it seems like Apple is making the proper preparations for any eventuality.