Steve Jobs’ patents: A vital lesson for CEOs

September 21, 2011, 7:16 PM UTC

By Bill Buxton, principal researcher Microsoft Research

Credit: Hugh Li

FORTUNE — Late last month, The New York Times published an article that both interested and surprised me. Steve Jobs is cited as an inventor on 313 patents and is the first listed inventor on over 10% of them. Almost all are design patents, running the gamut from MP3 players to power adaptors to the stairs in the Apple Store. Pretty interesting for someone with no formal design or technical training, much less the CEO of a major corporation. (His patent count eclipses that of any of his CEO counterparts.)

To the skeptics asking if Steve really contributed, I say of course. Based on my own experience, I find Steve’s participation entirely credible. Apple (AAPL) would be stupid to put anyone’s name on a patent, much less a high profile name like Steve’s, if that person hadn’t made a legitimate contribution. Doing so would not only invalidate the patent, it would expose the company and its brand to serious damage when revealed. Apple is many things; stupid is not one of them.

Taking Steve’s contribution to the patents as legitimate, what lessons might there be in the revelation? (In trying to come to some useful answer, it is probably worth keeping Paco Underhill’s observation in mind: The obvious is not always apparent.) Two points stand out: Steve was lead inventor on just over 10% of the 313 cited patents on which he is named — a significant minority, but not too shabby! Designer Jonathan Ive was named as co-inventor on 64% of those 313.

These make a two-sided coin. First, rather than leave design in Jonathan Ive’s competent hands, Steve still got sufficiently engaged that he and Jonathan collaborated on over 200 patents. Second, despite his intense involvement with the design organization, Steve still had a senior executive, Jonathan, in charge of design. What this reinforces is a lesson that is taught by most companies that excel in this area: you must have a senior design executive, and they must engage at the highest level.

However, while having a senior design executive is something that can and likely should be emulated, blindly trying to emulate the nature of Steve’s involvement is rather more questionable. Copying the exceptions is seldom an appropriate path to follow if one wants to be competitive. Steve was exceptional, and what is described in this article is a reflection of his character and his particular passions. He did what was natural to him. But that does not make it natural for you or me.

Adopting a nature alien to one’s own in an effort to copy someone else’s success — be it Steve Jobs’ or anyone else’s — is a mug’s game. One has to be true to one’s own nature and aptitudes, or be prepared to face the inevitability of being exposed as superficial and/or insincere. That being said, being true to one’s own nature does not justify the neglect of key aspects of one’s business lying outside of it. Executives need to know their own weaknesses as well as their strengths in order to make sure that all of the requisite ground is covered.

We can learn from both what is and is not said. What this article does not point out is that in allocating so much attention to design, Steve had to neglect other aspects of the business. And yet, a careful analysis of Apple shows that those “neglected” parts were consistently performing just as well as the design group (I write about this elsewhere.). If one does want to learn from Apple, and emulate Steve, don’t emulate what he did with design (unless it is truly in your nature). Rather, study how he managed the delegation of those other aspects of the business while he was working with Jonathan and the design team. Then emulate that in managing the things that fall outside of your own personal comfort zone — such as design, for example.

Finally, these patents notwithstanding, Steve Jobs was not, and is not, a designer. Nor, I suspect, would he ever describe himself as such. He spoke about Apple’s success in terms of curating the customer’s experience. I think that is a great way to put it. And so, while I don’t consider him a designer, I do believe that he is certainly one of the greatest curators that I have ever met, or know of. And for that, he has always had my respect.

Since the late 70’s Bill Buxton has been creating, studying, using and writing about interactive systems, especially from the human perspective. He has been a researcher at Xerox PARC, Alias|Wavefront, Silicon Graphics, and currently Microsoft Research.