I was most affected by Walter Isaacson's new biography of Steve Jobs. The book is a fascinating history of the personal computer, as well as a case study for how products are developed. I'm neither a Jobs fanboy nor a Jobs hater, and actually never paid much attention to him (even though, working in 'the biz', his name came up a lot). The Apple revolution sort of passed me by. I worked on Macs for a couple of years in the 90s and my main reaction was that they were underpowered. I'm simply too cheap to buy an iPhone or iPad, even though I recognize their value in opening up a new world of integrated data. Before reading the book, if you asked me to sum up the Steve Jobs' vision, I'd have said something like, "making things that are shiny and white".
The thing that struck me most about Isaacson's book is the advantage of having a visionary driving product development (and I now get it that Jobs was the ultimate visionary). In fact, since reading the book and thinking about places I've worked, many of them now seem utterly without vision - rudderless, or worse, propelled solely by interdepartmental politics and personal empire building. The exception is R&D departments run by a VP who has been on the team for a long time and who immerses himself in all the details of development. I have worked in a few companies that were run that way, and it seems an ideal structure - although none of them performed spectacularly. That lack of success may have come from the fact that R&D VPs tend to be developers who rise to the top, and possibly they bring with them too much reliance on a certain approach. As Alan Cooper would say, they are the inmate running the asylum.
Management visionaries are a double-edged sword. If they get it right, they're aces. But often they get it wrong, as Mike Lazaridis famously did when he decided that smartphone users would never embrace apps so the iPhone was not a threat to the BlackBerry. You can't expect visioinaries to succeed without quality inputs, which gets back to corporate structure: you need your visionary to be working with customers, feeling the bottom line, feeling the pain, feeling future trends. If your visionary is by nature an engineer, you might want to focus them on areas more suited to their mindset than things like consumer trends.
I was sympathetic to Jobs' frustration in getting his employees to do things his way. I wouldn't have wanted to experience his tantrums, but I can see why he had them. He never seemed to be able to get through to anyone - including Isaacson - that we need a fundamental change in our approach to developing products. Jobs’ employees wanted to create features while he wanted to create a user experience. He wasn't always right (or so it seems with hindsight), but his approach was.
In most companies it is a slow, difficult process to change the way people approach their work. So much is determined by corporate structure (eg you get very different results if the Doc department reports to Marketing or R&D). So much is determined by corporate culture (a bureaucratic mindset can deaden any initiative). Even when the people at the top try to change things, they don't always succeed, or succeed fast enough. To get back to the example of Mike Lazaridis: once he saw the light, was he ever successful in firing up his employees about superapps? I don't think so.
I don't want to say that visionaries are always at the top. Visionaries can exist at every level of employment, bringing that special something extra to whatever they're responsible for. The tragedy of mediocre managers is that they tend to feel threatened by visionaries and try to stomp out their initiative. It is also the tragedy of some corporate processes. In a DITA world where the writing process becomes a factory line of inputs, how do you handle writers who really get the user experience and have a vision for how to improve it? Sadly, the DITA revolution that is sweeping the industry seems determined to wipe out great writers. If doc management were able to recognize that trend, perhaps they could find ways to empower writers, even in the DITA paradigm. That would make a good talk for a CIDM conference: "The Effect of DITA on Writer Creativity, User Focus, and Empowerment - and How to Reverse It."