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The Apple effect: How Steve Jobs & Co. won over the world

UPDATE: Steve Jobs passed on Wednesday. In this cover story, first published last month, Alan Webber explores what made Steve Jobs (and Apple) exceptional. Apple knew what consumers didn't want and understood the power of being itself. A look at what the company can teach corporate America.

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"Apple's focus is on out-executing themselves, not the competition," Yamashita says. "Most companies push themselves within the boundaries of what they think they can already achieve. American business today is 'settling.' Companies are content to take their 2 percent growth within the envelope of what they know they're already capable of doing, stealing a little market share from someone else. It's kind of sad. Apple raises the bar on its own contribution to the world step by step."

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Apple's greatest strength, Yamashita says, may be its "obsessiveness." Obsessiveness about everything.

"Apple is obsessiveness to the power of 10," he says. "And you see it everywhere. It's in things that are immediately visible, like the retail stores. They spend more on tenant improvements than anyone: stone floors, not wood floors; glass tables, not plexiglass. But it's also in things you don't ordinarily see: Apple has the most symmetrically laid out motherboard in the industry. They're obsessive about the supply chain, obsessive about the design of the product, the packaging."

Yamashita tells the story of Jobs's walk-through before the opening of the first Apple Store. At the time, Apple was selling iMacs, the candy-colored computers that came in different "flavors." Jobs walked into the store where the computers were lined up flawlessly on a table, took one look at the display, then ordered the computers taken off and the table turned upside down. Then he pointed at a seam on the bottom of the table and pronounced it "unacceptable." Of course, customers would never see it. That wasn't the point. The point was it was there. The point was not to allow an imperfection. The point was not to give up on the Apple dream.

"Apple has always been on an ongoing journey to be its best self," Yamashita says. "Its marketing mission is to help Apple customers get the most out of their Apple products, to equip and enable their customers to be their best self, too. That kind of thinking has led to online tutorials, lessons at the Apple Stores, 'gen­ius bars.' What other company would hire 12,000 experts and then not charge customers a penny to talk with them?"

The ultimate lesson from Apple?

"All the pieces have to fit together," Yamashita says. "For Apple to be its best self, it has to be about its customers also being their best selves. Apple is aspirational and iconic. But its message to its customers is, 'You are, too.' "

American business is looking for something today, as are American consumers and workers. Change is in the air – in challenges from companies and countries around the globe, in a world where business, politics, society all seem to be changing rapidly, unpredictably, simultaneously. It is a global strategic inflection point we're all struggling to adapt to.

Can Apple offer some useful ways of thinking and working differently? Ways that apply to these challenging times?

There's no formula, but there are Apple lessons: Keep innovating and evolving. Keep raising the bar on yourself and your own possibilities. Keep learning and seeking. Keep obsessing about how to be your own best self. And most important, always remember that it's better to be a verb than a noun.

Alan M. Webber is former editorial director of the Harvard Business Review, cofounder of Fast Company magazine, and author, most recently, of "Rules of Thumb: 52 Truths for Winning at Business Without Losing Your Self."

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