Apple and the OODA Loop Problem

3 minute read
| Editorial

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 loopObserve, 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.

The OODA Loop

The OODA (or Boyd) Loop.

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.

A damped oscillator and damping period.

A damped oscillator and damping period as an analog. Uncertainty at start; objective truth at the end.

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.

Drone footage shows nearly complete main building at Apple Park campus

The Apple CEO is now a starship captain.

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.

Summary

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.

8 Comments Add a comment

  1. When I was in the Air Force (on the Space Shuttle Program) I learned about an alternative business decision technique: “Ready, Fire, Aim”. (Google it). Basically, the concept was to just make a well thought out decision and take action. Then based on whether you hit the target (which you likely didn’t), refine your decision/action (or product, if you will) and then you will be able to aim precisely. It seems like Apple does this with many of its products.

  2. Mike, Lee: Reminds me of a quote from the famous SciFi author Robert Heinlein. It goes something like this, as I recall: “Get your first shot off fast. This disorients the opponent just long enough to make your second shot perfect.” Heinlein was a Navy guy, BTW.

  3. I well remember that Microsoft scheduled its Surface Pro rollout the day before Apple’s announcement, of the new MacBook Pros. But it had been widely suggested that the long-ignored iMac might also get an update then.

    I wonder if that was just wishful thinking, or did Apple pull the iMac from the event because it would have been seen as a poor effort in comparison? And that would have seriously overshadowed the MBPs.

    I guess no-one asked that the other day. And also that it wouldn’t have received an answer even if they had.

  4. The problem right now, is that Apple keeps _telling_ us what they are doing or rather, going to do, but what I need is for Apple to _show_ me what they are doing. Give us product, and with that, I have a question, why are we discussing this in 2017, and why wasn’t Apple doing this in 2015 or earlier, even? I’ve been running a 2010 MBP since 2010, and never upgraded because there wasn’t a compelling-enough replacement for me–the upgrades seemed to be too minor to warrant the $1500 cost. And, what did Apple give me in the end? a touch bar and an extra $200 tacked on the price. Honestly, I’d rather the touch screen. It’s not like touching the screen is going to _replace_ the track pad, but it is a wonderful supplement, especially if you allow the screen to lie flat (180° flat).

    It is like Apple is trying so hard to be what they think it is supposed to be, or what they think it was, without actually _being_ Apple. Jobs was, simply put, able to turn about on a dime, and was compelling enough to force Apple to do that. Nobody at Apple has this ability, and that is what is sorely missing. Apple has become too ponderous. I think they will put out good product in the end, but it may end up being too little and too late. They need to return to showing us, and not telling us what they are doing. Seriously, with all that cash, and all that talent, I find it hard to believe that they couldn’t turn something out in months, rather than years.

  5. aardman

    “Meanwhile, Apple’s prestige has taken a serious hit.”

    Relative to the rest of the tech consumer world, we are watching Apple from a vantage point that is so close that its actions loom so large in our field of vision. Apple’s prestige has taken a serious hit only to a very, very small group of people.

    “Jobs was, simply put, able to turn about on a dime, and was compelling enough to force Apple to do that. Nobody at Apple has this ability,”

    Jobs was running a much smaller company than Apple is today. Factor that in. The famous example of Apple’s quick pivot was the switch from a plastic to glass screen on the eve of the first iPhone’s production. Compare iPhone production then and now. I don’t have the numbers available but it’s safe to say the difference is not small.

    I think the last couple of years, if the reports were right that Apple was pulling engineers off other projects for it, what caused Apple to drop the ball on Mac Pro, and to bobble it on the others, was Project Titan (Apple car). That project has been scaled down considerably since and now we see signs of life on the Mac Pro (and iMac) front.

  6. It appears to me that Apple has transitioned from an innovative company to an consumer goods company. IMO, it is reflective of Tim Cook’s style/abilities vs Jobs. Cook is a corporate executive first and foremost. Maximizing profits is his primary goal. Being innovative is not. There was a time when Apple was furiously focused on amazing their customers with products they couldn’t live without while other companies were following a more risk-free development cycle. Apple has certainly lost that edge, although their profits are undeniably amazing. Based on the goals of the average corporate executive, Cook is to be heralded. As a consumer that loved being wowed by Apple, Cook is a disappointment.

  7. Albatrossflyer

    Steve Jobs was the Kelly Johnson of Apple, Now Apple is run by Committee and as Kelly Johnson once said, no great design ever comes from a committee….

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