Sales v. Quality

Peggy Noonan (paywall article), quoting Steve Jobs:

There is an arresting moment in Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs in which Jobs speaks at length about his philosophy of business. He’s at the end of his life and is summing things up. His mission, he says, was plain: to “build an enduring company where people were motivated to make great products.” Then he turned to the rise and fall of various businesses. He has a theory about “why decline happens” at great companies: “The company does a great job, innovates and becomes a monopoly or close to it in some field, and then the quality of the product becomes less important. The company starts valuing the great salesman, because they’re the ones who can move the needle on revenues.” So salesmen are put in charge, and product engineers and designers feel demoted: Their efforts are no longer at the white-hot center of the company’s daily life. They “turn off.” IBM and Xerox, Jobs said, faltered in precisely this way. The salesmen who led the companies were smart and eloquent, but “they didn’t know anything about the product.” In the end this can doom a great company, because what consumers want is good products.

Jobs’s theory of decline was elegant and simple as an iPad, and when I asked business leaders about it the past few weeks, they agreed, some with the kind of engagement that suggested maybe their own companies had experienced such troubles.

The theory applies also to our politics. America is in political decline in part because we’ve elevated salesmen—people good on the hustings and good in the room, facile creatures with good people skills—above people who love the product, which is sound and coherent government—”good government,” as they used to say.

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