Apple’s John Browett Affair: Cooked

| Hidden Dimensions

“As you enter positions of trust and power, dream a little before you think.” — Toni Morrison

The recent apple affair with Tim Cook and John Browett can be analyzed from several perspectives. First, as captain of the ship, it’s Tim Cook’s first visible mistake, and there was a process by which he corrected it. Second, one has to ask if it’s happened before.

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Back in 2001, the vision of Steve Jobs came to fruition when he eagerly introduced the first Apple retail store in Tysons corner. That vision has endured to this day, and it has made Apple great.

Steve Jobs at Tyson's Corner

Steve Jobs at Tysons Corner 2001 (YouTube)

Recently, there was some fuss about how there may have been an initiative to tinker with the operations of the Apple retail stores. Namely, if one could reduce staff and cut back on the legendary customer service a bit, there would be additional revenue to extract from the stores. This came to the surface just as the fever of the iPhone 5 is peaking. Plus, the back to school season and looming holidays combined to make the initiative look like a very, very bad idea. The focus started on John Browett, then recently turned to Tim Cook.

Realities

In trying to understand the events, I turned to my own experience as a former member of Apple’s Federal sales team, nearly a decade ago now. In that environment, I saw both sides of the issue. There was Tim Cook, to whom my boss reported, not far up the chain, and a large group of sales executives, who were under the gun for sales and performance.

The driving atmosphere was that Apple was building great products, (even though, at the time, the Macs weren’t Intel-based), and that really good sales teams would be able to convey that to customers. However, as usual, there were also serious internal roadblocks, too many to get into here, and external roadblocks, namely a very entrenched Microsoft enterprise business that Apple was tackling with a PowerPC.

I watched as senior sales executives were under the watchful eye of Tim Cook, a numbers man, who was always mindful of less than miraculous sales, and who, sometimes, didn’t grasp the hurdles faced down in the trenches. But it was okay for us. We had the sparkling vision of Steve Jobs to inspire us.

Another driving atmosphere from on high was that if only Apple could find the right kind of sales VPs, in all sales sectors, all would be well. This was at a time when the Mac’s infrastruture and corporate commitment were ill-equipped to deal with Microsoft.  It was a pollyanna approach, driven by the vision of Mr. Jobs combined with a ruthless attention to sales numbers. Senior sales VPs had to make strong claims to keep their jobs, and failure remained an option. Mid- to high-level execs came and went as they made promises (or were maneuvered into them) they couldn’t keep and were let go. Marching orders to increase revenue cannot be pooh-poohed or dismissed by any VP in that environment.  Of course, that was well before the huge successes of the iPod touch, iPad, and iPhone, which almost seem to sell themselves these days. Again, thanks to the vision of Steve Jobs.

So my reaction to the current affair was that I’ve seen it before.

In another vein, I have recently used a military analogy with Tim Cook. He’s the captain of the Apple ship, and he carries the ultimate responsibility for everything that happens on his watch. Pushback from the John Browett affair has blown up, and Mr. Cook must take formal responsibility no matter what. So to say that all’s well and, aw shucks, we don’t believe our hero, Mr. Cook, could have been behind this, it doesn’t matter. CEO’s make mistakes, and this one falls on the shoulders of the CEO, no matter what the internal details were.

Speculation

So far, I’ve conveyed what I know from experience. My speculation is that the internal tenor of Apple got a little out of whack. The luminous team of Steve Jobs/Ron Johnson is now replaced by Tim Cook/John Browett. There’s no overriding visionary to guide the ship while the numbers man rides herd on sales. Instead, there were two men of like mind who thought there was additional revenue to be had by tinkering with the Jobs/Johnson formula for success.

When it blew up, my guess is that Tim Cook instantly saw what the problem was, and for the good of Apple, quickly reversed course to avoid an iceberg. That resulted in the quick announcement by Kristin Huguet, an Apple spokesperson. After all, what’s good for Apple is that the CEO and Apple remain unscathed. For the good of the company, even if Mr. Cook pushed SVP John Browett into a mistake, it’s Mr. Browett who will take the fall. Mr. Cook is a hard man to resist, and perhaps Browett didn’t speak truth to power, but made his promises and marched on.

Sailing On

In summary, the lesson here is that CEOs do make mistakes. Tim Cook has never been the CEO of a company before, let alone a technology giant. Every once in awhile, this captain will run into the sharp edges of the legacy that Steve Jobs built, and he’ll get tripped up. This is a human thing to happen. I’ll give him credit for seeing the problem and correcting it. Whether Mr. Browett takes the fall for that mistake or it’s all washed under the deck remains to be seen.

Comments

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

RoJo > JoBro.

mrmwebmax

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Excellent article, John, although I find this more than troubling:

My speculation is that the internal tenor of Apple got a little out of whack. The luminous team of Steve Jobs/Ron Johnson is now replaced by Tim Cook/John Browett. There?s no overriding visionary to guide the ship while the numbers man rides herd on sales. Instead, there were two men of like mind who thought there was additional revenue to be had by tinkering with the Jobs/Johnson formula for success.

It reminds me of how Steve Jobs often talked about what happened to Microsoft when Bill Gates left. To paraphrase: Sales guys took over, and look what happened.

Here’s hoping Apple avoids a similar fate.

ibuck

MRMwebmax:  Here?s hoping Apple avoids a similar fate.

Agreed. Haven’t been in to an Apple store lately, so I can’t tell if customer service has changed. But customer hard drives should never get erased, no matter the customer’s attitude.

MacFrogger

John:

Excellent perspective.  Its a good CEO who can see the error of his ways - or his subordinates ways - and reverse them before major damage has occurred.  I still think Browett is a bad fit for Apple.

Bosco:

I could not agree more!  But I just don’t think his model is gonna work at JCPenney!

iJack

Too soft on Cook, John.

Mark my words, Apple’s current success is largely the result of momentum, and may it last a decade. 
Cook, however is going to be the one to screw the pooch.

Bennyboy

I doubt that Tim had anything to do with it.  I think he’s coming to the defense of Browett since it was his pick.  He should have promoted within since the person who was the interim head of retail was at one time a low level person at Apple retail.  This is one of the biggest problems with Apple, they don’t promote from within enough.  They think (at least in retail), that someone with some sort of experience elsewhere can do a better job than someone who has been doing the job and should be given a chance to advance and take Apple to a new level.

On the other hand it was Browett who gave employees a pretty good merit increase.  Neither Cook, Johnson, or even Jobs himself did that.  So, he’s one for two in my book.  Let’s see how he does with holiday sales before we bring out the guillotine.

wab95

John:

I think this is the right perspective. Ultimately, the skipper runs the boat, and is responsible for getting it safely back to port, irrespective of crew chatter and consultation.

While I am no fan of Dixons’ in the UK, I don’t have a strong feeling about the ‘goodness of fit’ of Mr Browett with Apple. That he was responsible for another model at another corporation does not rule out his adaptability to a very different model and being able to successfully execute it. What I think is unlikely, based on my observations of how things work in the corporate world, is that Browett came in and attempted to ride roughshod over Apple and its retail store model; Apple is simply now too big and too prominent - indeed iconic - for any new recruit, irrespective of professional background, to ignore. Someone had to have green lighted his actions, and ultimately that someone is Tim Cook.

Does this portend badly for Apple’s future? Does it suggest that Captain Tim is sailing into the shoals? No; that would be a leap, in my opinion. If anything, this suggests that Cook and company are not simply riding on momentum, but are actively testing new approaches, and likely, technologies. That is a good sign, even if not every attempt is successful; afterall, they weren’t under SJ either (the Cube, the hockey puck, Ping, to name just three), nor did SJ always have it right (not willing to make the iPod and iTunes available on Windows, for example). Apple’s success reflects a consultative, iterative process. Mistakes will happen, and even SJ comments on this in his bio.

In the long run, it is not the isolated success or failure that is the issue, but the amalgam of these efforts that describes the trajectory of success or failure. Thus far, I’d argue that the course is nominal.

mrmwebmax

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Does it suggest that Captain Tim is sailing into the shoals? No; that would be a leap, in my opinion. If anything, this suggests that Cook and company are not simply riding on momentum, but are actively testing new approaches, and likely, technologies. That is a good sign, even if not every attempt is successful; afterall, they weren?t under SJ either (the Cube, the hockey puck, Ping, to name just three), nor did SJ always have it right (not willing to make the iPod and iTunes available on Windows, for example). Apple?s success reflects a consultative, iterative process. Mistakes will happen, and even SJ comments on this in his bio.

Steve Jobs once said that if Apple didn’t make mistakes, they weren’t trying hard enough. And, indeed, the Cube, hockey puck mouse, Ping, and more were mistakes.

My concern: Those were mistaken products. They were attempts to create something insanely great that—for whatever reason—didn’t pan out. The Apple Store fiasco was not an SJ kind of mistake: It was a bean counter mistake, not an attempt to create anything better, but simply an attempt to create more revenue.

That is the antithesis of what Steve Jobs did when he saved Apple. He and Apple created the most insanely great products imaginable, and the money followed. One of those insanely great products was, and still is, the Apple Stores. For Cook and/or Browett to attempt to create an inferior experience for the sake of increased revenue is so antithetical of SJ’s Apple that I have a number of concerns.

Time will tell. I just hope we don’t see more spreadsheet-based “innovation” like this. It reminds me of a sausage commercial from years back. A well-weathered farmer and his wife are in their kitchen; he at the table, she fixing breakfast. Some nerdy young accountant-type is telling him that he’d make more money by using cheap fillers and ingredients in his sausage. Then the farmer gives him the smack-down about how quality is the most important thing and that’s why he only uses the freshest cuts of quality meats in his sausage. The commercial ends with the nerdy young guy taking a bite of sausage and saying he wouldn’t change a thing.

Wise lesson, that.

iJack

The Apple Store fiasco was not an SJ kind of mistake: It was a bean counter mistake, not an attempt to create anything better, but simply an attempt to create more revenue.

That is the antithesis of what Steve Jobs did when he saved Apple. He and Apple created the most insanely great products imaginable, and the money followed.

That’s it in a nutshell.
I don’t know if Sir Jonathan Paul “Jony” Ive, KBE would have made a better CEO or not, but I’ll wager he wouldn’t have done anything as dumb as this.

Bean counter, indeed.  Every time I encounter a reference to, or picture of Tim Cook, I see John Sculley.

wab95

My concern: Those were mistaken products. They were attempts to create something insanely great that?for whatever reason?didn?t pan out. The Apple Store fiasco was not an SJ kind of mistake: It was a bean counter mistake, not an attempt to create anything better, but simply an attempt to create more revenue.


Very good points, mrmwebmax. I completely concur regarding ‘spreadsheet innovation’ (nice term). Despite the nature of this ‘innovation’ on the retail store, I believe that Cook is committed to simply making the best products and services - things that they (Apple employees) would want to use. I suspect that the response to this, perhaps even the consequences on staff morale, were unanticipated and simply not thought through. Bad form, but perhaps not the sign of pernicious rot that many fear. As you say, time will tell.

My alternative concern is that SJ had liberty to think, explore, try and fail. I don’t know if the Apple community and the Street will accord Cook even a fraction of that freedom. If he and his team are negatively rewarded for every failure, worse, for whatever purists insist are not ‘Jobsian’ in their design or execution, the Apple team could get intellectually and artistically bound into an unimaginative straight jacket, locked away behind walls of irrelevancy. I would prefer that they continue to be adventurous, bold, different; even if they fail on occasion, so long as the overall trajectory is an upward one.

Hopefully, they will simply learn, and not be intimidated, by their inevitable failures.

wab95

Every time I encounter a reference to, or picture of Tim Cook, I see John Sculley.

Hopefully, iJack, this is due to a refractive error or an astigmatism in your vision, and will not prove prophetic.

iJack

Hopefully, iJack, this is due to a refractive error or an astigmatism in your vision, and will not prove prophetic.

Let me get this right; you’re hoping I’m going blind?

wab95

Let me get this right; you?re hoping I?m going blind?

Thanks, that made me laugh.

No, many refractive errors require no intervention and sometimes even auto-correct. May your vision be ever sharp.

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