Steve Jobs – the most effectual thinker of our era

It was shattering news on the radio this morning. We knew that Steve Jobs had to be very ill to stand down from the helm at Apple. But to die so soon after. At the age of only 56. 

I wrote earlier in the week about Saras Sarasvathy’s seminal  paper: “What makes entrepreneurs entrepreneurial”. I urge you to google it and print a copy. In her study into what makes entrepreneurs different from everyone else, she highlights the way they think. She describes it as ‘effectual’ reasoning, and contrasts it with predictive and rational thinking, which she calls ‘causal’. 

For Sarasvathy, a decision based on causal reasoning is designed to cause an outcome which will bring you closer to your goal. Causal reasoning or decision making is about means to an end. Logical. Sequential. Linear. This is command and control behaviour. 

Effectual reasoning is not about setting a goal and making decisions based on how to achieve it. Effectual thinking and decision making is about making things happen in a broader sense. Effectual decisions can work just as well in an indirect way. 

In marketing and advertising, we are very familiar with both approaches. Marketing plans are predominantly causal, relating actions and investments to financial and verifiable targets and data. 

Advertising, on the other hand, particularly in the brave new world of consumer conversations, tends to be based on strategic thinking and insights into consumer behaviour, and what might influence it. Planning and creative are inherently effectual, while media, direct marketing and promotions are causal.

Which brings us back to the amazing career, influence and sheer creativity of Steve Jobs. Not only an innovator par excellence. He was also a true visionary in that he was able to conceive, make and market a legendary line of products under the Apple, Mac and “I-“ labels, which his loyal followers adopted as if the branding was actually theirs. 

Effectual is of course the exact opposite of ineffectual. Jobs was effectual and influential to an extent unmatched by any of his contemporaries. We can cite a distinguished list of pioneers from former generations: Stephenson, Brunel, Hargreaves, Ford, Marconi and so on. Or early consumer champions who built giant companies like P&G, Unilever, Nestle, Cadbury and co. But the mechanics of manufacture, distribution and selling in those days were much more straight line. People were still customers. They had not yet learned to become consumers. 

Jobs has been the most effectual leader and champion of the consumer revolution – understanding that entertainment, leisure, friendship and fun are just as important as producing documents and making phone calls. Pixar and the App Store are as much a part of his extraordinary legacy as the Apple Mac and the iPhone. His inventions haven’t just given us great products to buy. He defined, shaped and framed the empowered world we now take for granted.