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Apple v. Dartmouth — Steve v. Carol

Segall.jpgWhen John Kemeny was the President of the College, Dartmouth’s chief decision-making body was his famous “kitchen cabinet” — a group of five or six senior administrators and professors who would meet regularly in the mansion on Webster Avenue. From this little group came John Kemeny’s “bets”, the bold moves to drive the College forward in specific areas: coeducation, computing, foreign study programs, etc. The latter two areas were major innovations in higher education; Dartmouth led other colleges for many years in the use of computers and the number of students going abroad.

Of course, after a decision was made in the Kemeny kitchen, the machinery of convincing the College’s stakeholders of the wisdom of each decision was wheeled into place, but the vision itself came from a small group.

Simplify.jpgContrast this method of creating innovative ideas for the College with IP Folt’s lumbering strategic planning itiniative (“strategic planning retreats, 200 working group members, nine working groups; 3,000 people participating in focus groups and forums,” etc.), and you have the observation that is the focus of advertising man Ken Segall’s book: Insanely Simple: The Obsession That Drives Apple’s Success. This pretty little volume, the first by someone who worked directly with Steve Jobs (as opposed to the various books by journalists who studied Steve and Apple from the outside) should be required reading for the College’s next President. It is a perfect description of everything that Folt/Kim/Wright have not done — have a small group of the highest quality people focus on the core values that make Dartmouth a special school.

For a further example of what is wrong beyond the current strategic planning contraption, look at the College’s most recent capital campaign: it highlighted 91 priorities for the institution. 91! If you have that many priorities, then in reality, you have none at all.

Or think of the utter absence of any significant development in recent years in the academic and residential life of the College. The only example that I can come up with is the change of the calendar around Thanksgiving. That’s pretty thin gruel over the fourteen year’s since Jim Wright became President in 1998.

Of course, the institutional sclerosis affecting Dartmouth is hardly unique. Segall cites his advertising work with both Dell and Intel as a contrast to the efficiency and imagination that characterized Apple: these lumbering companies insisted on multiple meetings with numerous participants for even simple questions, and endless market testing and focus groups before any decision could be made — in short, Dell and Intel were run by weak-willed people who did not understand their customers nor their company’s overarching goals. Sound familair?

At Apple, a single-minded focus on making great products, ones that would give users a unique experience, was the core principle that animated all thinking, discussions and investments. Let’s imagine applying that principle in Hanover: what if the Trustees decided (I mean really decided, not just paid lip service to the idea) that Dartmouth should be the greatest undergraduate institution in the world and everything else be damned. Wouldn’t that help our new President understand the institution’s goals?


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