Many people are surprised to learn that in the authorized Steve Jobs biography there are well over a dozen references to Jobs’ use and deep appreciation for whiteboards and whiteboarding. A search on Google also pulls up plenty of images of Jobs at work on a whiteboard, and there are even quite a few videos of him ‘whiteboarding’ available to watch on YouTube. Indeed, for many people it might seem strange that a person such as Jobs – who is so intimately connected with the development, promotion and adoption of IT – could have such a relationship with the standard issue office whiteboard. However, if you also reflect on Jobs’ reputation for being a truly great communicator, a master persuader, a super salesman, an inspirational leader and an ideas man, then maybe his appreciation and mastery of whiteboarding will begin to make sense.

Starting with this article, it is my intention to document Jobs’ known work on the whiteboard so that we can better understand how he used whiteboards in his roles as tech evangelist, entrepreneur, leader, marketeer and thinker. In time, given the information that is already out there, it is possible that I can even compile a Steve Jobs Whiteboarding Playbook (although I am not sure how many other Whiteboard geeks are out there…).

For our first installment let us examine a whiteboard situation that is detailed in Walter Isaacson’s authorized biography of Jobs.

Steve Jobs’ Whiteboard Play #1: The Argumentum ad Absurdum Mash Up

The story tells of a conversation between Steve Jobs and Larry Kenyon. Kenyon was one of the lead engineers in charge of developing the operating system for the Macintosh and on this day Jobs had a bone to pick with him. Having entered Larry’s cubicle, Jobs complained that the Mac’s operating system took too long to boot up. Larry immediately started to lay out the reasons why it was the way that it was – and why a reduction in the boot up time was impossible.

Rather than listen to Larry’s explanation, Jobs cut him off mid sentence and earnestly asked him: “If it could save someone’s life, would you be able to find a way to shave 10 seconds off the boot time?” As strange as the question was, it seems to have struck a chord with Larry, as he confirmed that in just such a situation he believed that he probably could find a way.

Without missing a beat, Jobs then picked up a dry marker and approached the nearby whiteboard. He wrote up a seemingly simple series of calculations: 10 seconds per day for 5 million Mac users equates to 50 million seconds per day, then he introduced 250 working days a year then calculated how it all came to 300 million hours per year – which he then equated to the lifetimes of 100 people.

Stumped and somewhat stunned, Larry then accepted the argument and immediately went back to his cubicle to start work on the problem. He came back to Jobs a few weeks later after having shaved 28 seconds off the boot up time!

Analysis of Steve Jobs’ Technique.

In this conversation with Kenyon we can see how Jobs combines one of the whiteboard’s unique advantages with some tried and tested negotiating and debating strategies.

Situational Power.

Firstly, having failed to gain Kenyon’s agreement in the initial conversation, consider how Jobs chooses to leverage the whiteboard to gain control over Kenyon’s thought process. Rather than let Kenyon run through his own argument about how the request could not be done (and from the comfort of his own cubicle) – Jobs takes Kenyon’s focus and the discussion and physically moves them to the whiteboard. This might be seen as neutral territory – but this is absolutely not the case. Jobs immediately assumes the dominant lead by having the marker, controlling the debate, and by illustrating his argument on the whiteboard. Kenyon is at this point a mainly passive observer, with some additional opportunities to confirm, nod and agree with Jobs’ logic.

Appeal to Logic.

He then runs through some multiplications to come up with a very big number. Having scaled it all the way up, this number is then reduced all the way back down whilst also being converted from ‘hours per day’ to ‘human lives per year’.

This ‘numbers game’ is a clear variation on the debating strategy of Argumentum ad absurdum (also known as the ‘Reduction to the Ridiculous’ in negotiations) where an argument is supported either by running the numbers up or down (“So as you can see, you absolutely can have the new Lexus – and all for the same price as a large cappuccino every day – over the next 20 years!).

Personally, having tried, I can’t even get the maths to stack up – so unless I am alone in this – it looks like Jobs may also have engaged in some creative accounting during this process as well. Whatever, having got the improvement he desired I guess we can forgive him that. Just consider all of the lives that have been saved in the 25 years that have since passed…

Appeal to Emotion.

Bearing in mind how the turning point of this conversation – and the eventual ‘close’ – both came from an appeal to emotion (“Could you do it if we could save a life?”) then it seems that Jobs must have had an inkling that Kenyon was an altruist at heart. Maybe he knew him well enough to know this about him, we will never know, however, it is also possible that Jobs saw something in Kenyon’s cubicle that revealed this part of his personality (maybe a statue of Buddha on his desk, or an Amnesty International flyer etc). Whatever it was, it was the perfect hook for getting Kenyon to commit himself to Jobs’ plan.

Theoretical Presentation.

Lastly, with the numbers being presented in the form of a mathematical formula, Jobs’ argument also expresses itself in the form of science and academia – surely both of which were likely to appeal to the software engineer Kenyon.

All in all, a very powerful act of persuasion, and one where whiteboarding played a critical part in helping Jobs to get his goal.

In summary:

  • Jobs chose the physical territory for the debate.
  • Jobs used the whiteboard to direct the debate by getting his audience to focus visually (and therefore mentally) on his chosen argument.
  • Jobs presented his case using both logic and numbers to communicate with the ‘engineer’ in front of him.
  • Jobs used the emotional hook to set up his argument – and to close for agreement.
  • Jobs fused all of these elements into a powerful persuasion play.