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How Jobs & Wozniak Used Cognitive Friction to Change the World  

Today, Apple products call to mind words like ‘simple’ or ‘intuitive.’ But its founding team was anything but frictionless—and that was by design.

Long before Apple became a household name, two friends set out on an ambitious project: Creating a fully-functioning video game for Atari in only four days.

The year was 1974 and Steve Jobs, then working nights as a technician at Atari, decided to develop a single-player version of Pong. The only problem? He had no idea how to build it himself. Luckily, Jobs knew someone who did, and he gave him a tight deadline: four days.

“I didn’t think I could do it,” Steve Wozniak recounted.  

Jobs pushed his new business partner through a process that would’ve normally taken months; a few mornings later, the sleep-deprived duo delivered a working game. ‘Breakout’ went on to become a global sensation and brought Atari’s influence to new heights. But it had an even bigger impact: bringing Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak together as a team.

The power of cognitive friction

Jobs and Wozniak soon upped the ante and struck out on their own. Working out of Jobs’ garage in Los Altos, California, the team pushed forward with a more ambitious goal; now, they set their sights on bringing personal computers to the masses. They’d call it the Apple 1.

Today, Apple products call to mind words like ‘simple’ or ‘intuitive.’ But in the company’s early stages, its founding team was anything but frictionless—and that was by design.

A DIY setup meant the two-man team had to comb local electronics shops for parts while working out the finer points of wide-scale production. And though Wozniak and Jobs shared a common goal, they approached business from polar directions.

Disagreements in style and execution eventually became a strength. Jobs and Wozniak learned to leverage a psychological dynamic called cognitive friction, which pits opposing viewpoints directly against one another to spur on new ideas. This type of productive conflict relies on:

  • Being comfortable with and inviting disagreement
  • Defusing tension and taking a step back when things get personal
  • Practicing debate where the goal is to explore alternatives, not necessarily “win”

Tension—in both work habits and demeanor—was a feature, not a bug. Wozniak was known to keep his head down, maintain a low profile, and work behind the scenes. Jobs was charismatic, hands-on, and routinely “bent reality” to overcome obstacles. (In other words, he wouldn’t take no for an answer).

Jobs' vision was also guided by life experiences, such as a stint in India searching for spiritual enlightenment. Decisions were rarely straightforward; an intense argument about expansion slots nearly sidelined the whole project.

Yet for Apple, cognitive friction helped address a monumental challenge: balancing design and functionality. Their product couldn’t cater only to in-the-know users, such as fellow tinkerers in the Homebrew Computer Club. They also couldn’t sacrifice too many capabilities and risk losing out to the likes of IBM.

This journey to achieve balance was evident in Apple’s initial product releases. Launched in 1976, the Apple I was too technical for the average user (in fact, Wozniak was the only person who could answer customer support questions.)

Progress and higher sales figures came with the Apple II, but critics derided it as “an underpowered toy” with marketability prioritized over software functionality.

Finally, the Apple III taught a valuable lesson in practicality; Jobs was dead set on creating a sleek machine, even insisting there be no fans or cooling vents.  Consequently, it overheated.

Cognitive friction helped address a monumental challenge: balancing design and functionality.

But this iterative, back-and-forth process was essential to bridging the gap between simplicity and sophistication. As the company scaled and included more project teams, Jobs would regularly step in and apply pressure. Jobs fiercely debated Jef Raskin, a lead developer and Apple’s manager of publications, about pricing and pushed the limits of just how many features could be stripped down.

Friction became baked into Apple’s strategy and, as Jobs outlines in the video below, was central to achieving breakthroughs.

“It’s about bumping up against each other, having arguments, even having fights sometimes, making some noise. But through working together, [the teams] polish each other and they polish the ideas,” Jobs explained.

Breaking through with the power of ‘how’ and ‘why’

That big breakthrough came with the Macintosh, Apple’s first defining success.

Prior to its 1985 launch, most computers still looked like a typewriter with black screens full of text. This did little to convince people they could accomplish daily tasks on the computer, making it hard to justify spending thousands of dollars to buy one.

In order for the Macintosh to reach a wider audience, Apple needed to upgrade the mouse from the failed Lisa project, then market a radically new user experience. Their new creation would feature a graphical interface, melding the latest in computer technology with a lifelike feel. The Macintosh even recreated the sensation of working at a desk with animated folders—a far cry from its text-based predecessors.

In short, this was the ultimate chance for Wozniak and Jobs to use their skillsets toward one common goal.

Wozniak rallied a team of oddball engineers to focus on the technical specs, while Jobs helped refine the product positioning: easy-to-use, inviting, and, above all, intuitive. The Macintosh was unveiled to the world in a 1984 Super Bowl commercial, and quickly took off, selling over 70,000 units in the first 4 months after its release.

So how did a tech realist and an aspirational marketer bring out the best in one another? In the 2009 book Start With Why, leadership expert Simon Sinek outlines the two types of people that make up great business teams: the “how” and the “why.”

The why types are, “the visionaries with overactive imaginations… They tend to be optimists who believe all things they imagine can actually be accomplished.”

The how types have, “a clearer sense of all things practical.”

"Steve Jobs was the rebel's evangelist, but Steve Wozniak is the engineer who made Apple work,” Sinek writes. “Jobs had the vision, Woz had the goods. It is the partnership of a vision of the future and the talent to get it done that makes an organization great."

Without Wozniak’s know-how, Apple would’ve remained merely a big idea. Jobs, for his part, motivated teams to constantly push through challenges and turned the seemingly impossible into reality. Their “how and why” combination came to define a new, revolutionary era of Apple.

The saga wasn’t without heated moments, but the Steves’ unique styles ultimately coalesced. “I think a company can be a good family,” said Wozniak. Nevertheless, he continued, “If the Macintosh project had been run my way, things probably would have been a mess.”

Apple's A.Team lives on

The impact of a great team doesn’t need to end when they separate. And, at Apple, the Steves' ethos continues to this day.

Wozniak departed Apple in 1985, while Jobs took a 12-year leave from the company beginning in the same year. But when Jobs made a triumphant return, in 1997, his commitment to building great teams was stronger than ever. Even with Wozniak absent from daily operations, the teamwork principles established decades before endured.

While Jobs was himself often the public face of Apple’s marketing arm, he readily admitted, “Great things in business are never done by one person; they’re done by a team of people.”

That’s why, when it came time to make an impact in the twenty-first century, he forged more and more partnerships. For the iPod, iPhone, Macbook, and iPad, he worked tirelessly with product designer Jony Ive to ensure every detail came into place. The same debates of form and function that occupied Wozniak and Jobs some 25 years earlier also played a crucial role in shaping Apple’s modern identity.

“Great things in business are never done by one person; they’re done by a team of people.” — Steve Jobs

Those rounded corners we’ve come to know and love? They’re the result of yet another boundary-pushing piece of instruction from Jobs: “Make it [the iMac] lickable.” And though Jobs was initially skeptical of tablets, it was a team of designers who convinced him that they could bring one to market the Apple way. Thus, the iPad was born.

Whether it’s a final sprint to release an Atari game or convincing the world that personal computing can be fun, Apple might make it seem easy. But distilling complex products into their best forms requires the cognitive friction of a great team.

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