What Apple’s iPhone Teaches About Building Teams

Building a great product—whether a piece of hardware or software—requires a great team.

But what defines “great”? In many ways, it’s not just about selecting tech pros with the right mix of skills and experience; in order to accomplish the project’s aims, you need a team with the right mentality.

Here’s a key example: Apple’s iPhone. Inventing the now-iconic device required that Scott Forstall, who a decade ago was a top-ranking Apple executive, build a group of engineers who could not only imagine something totally new, but build it solidly enough for millions of people to use.

“Steve told me to go assemble an entire software team, but only from people within Apple,” Forstall told an audience assembled to hear him speak at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA, according to Fast Company. “He didn’t want anybody from the outside to see any of the interfaces, because he was so afraid of leaks.”

With those orders in hand, Forstall went shopping. He did so with a particular philosophy adopted from Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck, who ordered people on a continuum from “fixed mind-set” (i.e., those who believe in fixed skills that don’t really change) to “growth mind-set” (those who think their abilities evolve). Forstall pursued people who he thought represented the best of the latter.

“We were dealing with a project that was impossible or next to impossible, so we needed people who were going to be able to survive that,” Forstall told the museum audience. That made it necessary to build a team of people willing to learn and experiment, as opposed to depending overmuch on their current skillset.

To put it mildly, not every tech team out there is creating the next iPhone. In fact, a lot of tech pros build or iterate upon the routine: a new piece of enterprise software, for example, or a mobile game. In that context, “routine” is good: there are templates and libraries that allow such things to be built quickly, and they provide a lot of utility to users.

But a “growth mind-set” can still apply to even the most straightforward projects. Experimenting with new features is how teams figure out whether the “impossible” is actually possible (albeit with a lot of work). Building in time for innovation and brainstorming, even within an ultra-tight schedule, can yield something that makes your product truly unique—and make your team a great one in the process.