In my observations about Apple lately, I’ve been thinking about decision cycles. That’s because, somewhere in my carrer, I was exposed to the military concept of getting inside the enemy’s decision cycle. This was further refined by the legendary USAF Colonel John Boyd as the OODA loop. Observe, orient, decide and act. From Wikipedia:
An entity (whether an individual or an organization) that can process this cycle quickly, observing and reacting to unfolding events more rapidly than an opponent can thereby ‘get inside’ the opponent’s decision cycle and gain the advantage.
A corollary of this OODA loop is that rapidly changing technology, a massive influx of too much non-curated information, consumer response, social media and actions by the competition can also get inside a corporation’s decision cycle. The result is often dramatic.
First, the outcome of the decisions made by an organization often can’t be assessed until it’s too late. Next, by the time the mistake is recognized, even if very early, the pace of change and events have pushed the decision makers into a new set of possibly bad decisions to either remedy or move forward.
The Damping Period
The problem with early decision making is that both the pros and cons appear to have equal weight at first. If there are proponents of each side of the argument, each can make a convincing case—at first. Later, after a suitable damping period, the objective facts sort out. A problem arises when the damping period is longer than time for the next critical decision.
It’s time for an example. Apple launched the 2016 MacBook Pro with Touch Bar at the end of October, 2016. It wasn’t generally available until early November. So Apple didn’t have a full quarter’s worth of sales data going into 2017. But the tremors induced both by the Microsoft Surface Studio and Apple’s pro users were instantaneous and influential.
Apple invested a lot in the Touch Bar as a technical alternative to touching the display of a Mac. Also, the company made a big investment in the beauty of a thin MBP. However, what pro users yearned for was more RAM (32 GB), more CPU/GPU speed, and a longer battery life. That’s what competitors were providing.
Initial sales were enough to offset a decline in overall Mac sales for Q1, but we don’t know if that was simply pent up demand or affection for the Touch Bar. I’d guess Apple won’t know for sure for another quarter.
It’s likely that Apple is now beginning to finally assess the sales success, consumer utilization and developer support for the Touch Bar. But now it’s time (perhaps past time) for Apple to envision the next generation MBP and decide if they met the expectations of their pro users. Perhaps the company will learn from its Mac Pro experience.
Case Study: The Mac Pro Debacle
The inattention to the Mac Pro gave Apple plenty of time to diagnose the situation and make a decision going forward. But the cost was a serious corporate initiative by both HP and Microsoft to move in on Apple’s tech and creative pro customers. Apple’s recent response was heartening, but it will come very late. Some customers will wait things out, but many will defect from the fold. Meanwhile, Apple’s prestige has taken a serious hit.
One of the black arts in technical leadership is to have great, even ruthless, instincts about how a decision will take its course without having to wait too long into the damping period for the final validation. One euphemism for that is the well-worn notion of “skating to where the puck will be, not where it is.” Steve Jobs was good at that.
How do we determine when a company is managing its decision cycle well? One way is to see products evolving rapidly and being released on a regular basis. It’s a sign of decision authority being delegated by top management. Rapid OODA loops, decision authority and frequent product cycles are something Apple hasn’t been able to do lately, outside the iPhone, and 2017 will tell us if Apple has corrected the problem.
Large companies are like aircraft carriers. They’re powerful, but hard to turn on a dime. For a corporation to respond effectively to an ever increasing pace of change, changes that can infect and destroy decision cycles, the delegation of authority is important. The improper delegation of responsibility without the attendant and required authority is a genuine challenge as companies grow to enormous size.
We’ve seen how Apple’s decision cycles are getting longer and longer, not shorter in the non-iPhone product areas. Those longer decision cycles aren’t going to work for much longer in the tech world where every opening and every mistake by Apple creates an opportunity for other companies who want a piece of Apple’s action. The evolution of Apple’s iPad and the entire Mac lineup in 2017/8 will tell us a lot about how Apple is solving its OODA loop problems.