The recent death of Apple’s former CEO, Steve Jobs, has been marked by many articles about his life. The products that Apple has launched and supported over the years have greatly influenced the technology markets. Many people are asking if Apple can maintain its technology position without Steve. If the design process at Apple was completely dominated by Steve, then this is a real question; however, if the design process proceeded in a similar fashion in all of the places I have worked before, then Apple should be able to continue doing what it has been doing for the past decade with much success.

Leonard E. Read’s article “I, Pencil: My Family Tree as told to Leonard E. Read” points out why Apple should be able to continue to prosper. This excerpt highlights its profound claim:

There isn't a single person in all these millions, including the president of the pencil company, who contributes more than a tiny, infinitesimal bit of know-how. From the standpoint of know-how the only difference between the miner of graphite in Ceylon and the logger in Oregon is in the type of know-how. Neither the miner nor the logger can be dispensed with, any more than can the chemist at the factory or the worker in the oil field—paraffin being a by-product of petroleum.

The article applies this level of complexity to a pencil, which is simpler in composition and design than any of Apple’s products. If Steve acted correctly as a CEO, he did not allow himself to be a single point of failure for the company. Other people with similar talents (even if they are manifest across several people instead of just one person), should already be identified and integrated into the design process.

A key function for any manager is to be able to identify at-risk talents, skills, and experience within their groups and to create an environment where losing any single person will not kill the group’s ability to complete its tasks. The group’s productivity may suffer, but the tasks can be correctly completed.

Does the management of any large and successful company really allow its future to rest on the shoulders of a single individual? Does only a single person within your group dominate the design process so thoroughly that if they were to “win the lottery” and suddenly disappear that your group would be in trouble? What are some of the strategies your group uses to ensure that the loss of a single person becomes such a large risk to the completion of that project? Do you have a formal or informal process for cross training your team members?

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