Given Steve Jobs’ announcement that he is stepping down as CEO of Apple (although he’s staying on as Chairman), I expect that there will be many stories written about his remarkable turnaround of the company that he returned to in the late 1990s. Here’s my favourite:

On his return to the Apple hot-seat Jobs was asked by a US business professor about his strategy. Given the dominance of Microsoft’s operating system, and Dell and Compaq’s leadership in hardware, the professor expected a reply about cost-cutting, range management, use of partnerships etc. Instead, Jobs simply said, “I’m waiting for the next big thing!”

Jobs knew that technology was changing fast and that, at some point, a big opportunity would emerge. For Apple that opportunity was iTunes and the iPod, developments that weren’t really about computers but personal entertainment. Apple’s move into music created a revolution – both of the company and its markets – but it also highlighted that sometimes, doing nothing and remaining open to discovering a big opportunity can be the best strategy.

It is perhaps a lesson that Leo Apotheker should have taken on board. The HP CEO is currently being derided by analysts and shareholders alike for trying to change too much at the company at once. Rather than getting some successes under his belt, Apotheker is busy shutting down divisions and radically refocusing the business.

There is a psychological desire in all of us to take action in uncertain times, as Apotheker is demonstrating, but this is not always the best way forward. Remaining open to new possibilities – serendipity, if you like – and acting quickly and decisively when you spot a winner, is often a better strategy for growth than putting all your energies and focus into changing structures and plans.

Understanding that lesson was part, just part, of Jobs’ brilliance.

© Stuart Cross 2011. All rights reserved.