“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn..” — Alvin Toffler
Early last decade, Apple got a reputation for doing some things differently than other companies. Amidst the surfeit of Windows in the enterprise, those policies were seen as offbeat and ultimately ineffectual — even though they made perfect sense. Ten years later, those decisions are paying off in spades while Apple’s competitors are suffering, financially embarrassed by the effects of Apple’s long term thinking.
Those of us who have written about Apple for a long time noted and wrote about some interesting decisions Apple was making when Mr. Jobs returned, but naysayers pointed out that Windows continued to dominate. So there was no observable impact at first. In fact, it just took some time for things to snowball. Here’s my own recap of some decisions Apple made for the the long run that have resulted in Apple’s enormous success today.
1. Apple used to be simply a computer company, as evidenced by its former name, “Apple Computer, Inc.” Apple’s mission was to sell computers in competition with PCs. Apple lost that war. Then one day, I suspect, Apple executives got together and said: the Mac is so superior to Windows PCs, but customers aren’t listening. There’s too much market momentum. So what would happen if we used the excellence of the Mac, instead, to leverage our company in the consumer electronics marketplace?”
Along the way, Apple not only built the best computer on the planet, but the company put one on every employee’s desk. That’s not because, duh, Apple makes the Mac. It’s because if the Mac is so good, having all of Apple’s regular employees use one for years and years should ultimately have some positive effect. Otherwise, Apple has just been wasting its time and breath developing OS X.
I believe that that superiority of the Mac in the hands of every Apple employee is now like a Katamari ball, leading to a very positive advantage. Back in the 1990’s companies asked themselves, what’s the best system to give our employees so we can compete in the 21st century? Apple supplied the answer. Few understood and are now paying the price.
2. The first item is just the 30,000 ft. view. In some detail, Apple made the commitment to move OS X technologies forward as fast as humanly possible. Every possible impediment to success was discarded. Every temptation to cater to government and business that would have locked Apple into older technologies, just because IT managers don’t like to learn and change, were steadfastly resisted. (I have a personal story about that and the U.S. Navy, but I am reluctant to go into details for the sake of everyone involved.)
While Apple appeared to be forsaking developers by rushing forward at a breathless pace, Apple executives realized that the only way Apple could give itself the technologies needed to compete (and win) was to leap past the PC era into the post-PC era. The result, as I’ve said before, is that not only Apple’s competition but PC-based businesses have been trying to move into the future with the tools of the past. It can’t be done.
Apple’s approach suggests the explanation for why Apple envisioned and shipped the iPad, not some other company.
The key to this has been development technologies and tools that allowed both Apple engineers and the developer community to build not just apps but app-building tools faster and better than the competition. The result is that developers are now saying that developing for WP7 and RIM is a pain and developing for the iPhone is a joy. Even as I acknowledge Apple’s head start, it’s telling that the iPad has 100,000 native apps while Android/Honeycomb has just a few hundred.
3. Once you have a superior computing system, let your employees manage their own computers. Apple’s rule is this: if you’re not smart enough to manage a Macintosh on your own, you’re not smart enough to work for us. It’s that simple.
How many people do you know who’ve been given a PC notebook with Windows XP by their employer, but they’re not allowed to manage it in any way? It must be taken into the IT department for updates. Administrative privileges are denied. The company whines that it’s too expensive to update to Windows 7 and a Windows 7 capable PC. If this is the kind of computer given to employees, is it any wonder they can’t compete against Apple or anyone else?
Apple’s IT group is amazing. They work behind the scenes to maintain operational capability and security. A fabulous call center helps employees with the occasional technical issue. The one thing they do not do is strangle the company with dictums. And they absolutely don’t get in the way of how employees use their Macs imaginatively for their own learning and technical development.
4. Don’t let your VPs have too much control or they’ll start to protect their turf, kill off internal competition, starve the R&D people to cut costs and then pad their own pockets with bonuses.
Make sure every VP has a passion to change the world, not just their assigned parking spot.
Tie VP compensation to stock growth and and profits of his or her division, not the company as a whole. That way, if a project isn’t making money, it must be ruthlessly cancelled. Customers will tell the VP if his products are insanely great, not the other way around.
The role of most non-technical managers is to manage resources for the good of the company — not them — and assist the staff with day-to-day human issues. If they aren’t managing time, money and resources for the benefit of the people who work for them, then they don’t have the management training and disposition you need to succeed.
5. Attract and hire the best talent on the planet. To do that, like Apple, you’ll have to make sure hiring authority remains firmly in the hands of technical managers, not HR. Many companies say they want the best talent, but they’re ambivalent when it comes to paying for it — or letting smart technical managers personally attract and hire great talent.
Create a learning organization so that your employees learn and adapt faster than the competition. As W. Edwards Deming said, “Learning is not compulsory — neither is survival.”
A sure sign that your employees have lost confidence in you and each other is when you see Dilbert cartoons tacked to the cubicle walls. In all the years I worked for Apple, I never saw a single Dilbert cartoon in the offices. Apple employees have a lot of respect for each other, and while some decisions that are made are brutal, they’re also pretty darn smart. You’ll know you’re on the road to success when all the Dilbert cartoons at your company are gone.
6. Don’t consume your company’s precious capital by constructing a new office building until you have money to burn. Apple, the richest company in the world, has survived in barely adequate offices at 1 Infinite Loop for many, many years. Only recently has the company allowed itself the luxury of envisioning a fabulous new HQ, and it will still make only a small dent in the capital reserves.
Some companies are in too big a hurry to create an outward sign of their success with new facilities, catering to the hubris of senior executives, long before they’ve secured their future. While Apple runs a lean operation and forces smart decisions through austerity, I’ve also seen Apple judiciously roll money down where it’s needed, not upwards where it creates resentment.
7. Committees don’t design great products. Talented individuals conceive great products. If your current talent isn’t conceiving and delivering products people want to buy, it’s time for a change. No one’s job should be secure.
Pit development teams against each other. Work furiously to build new products that make your current products (and thereby the competition’s) obsolete.
8. Steve Capps, formerly with Apple and on the original Finder team, once said that, at Apple, the product manager and the engineers worship at the alter of the product. Bad approaches are ditched. The product manager has the authority to kill the product and start over. One can’t worship the schedule, and yet, as Steve Jobs has said, a great artist ships. That’s why Apple products are simple and intuitive on day one. They gradually grow with the customer.
The Staggering Result
Apple adopted these approaches right after Steve Jobs returned to Apple. At first, nothing exciting seemed to be happening. But after years of steadfast adherence to these policies, Apple is now winning and winning big. Apple is just about the most valuable company on the planet.
I haven’t enumerated every policy and approach that Apple has taken up. Also, volumes have been written about Apple’s other virtues: great product design, intuitive GUIs, the art of surprise and delight, making the whole greater than the sum of the parts, shrewd use of capital, giving the customer what they need — before they realize they need it and so on. However, if you consider just these items above, items that your business has control over, it’s clear that they’ve paid huge dividends for Apple in the long run.
Now you have to ask yourself: why is my company different? Why can’t we succeed and make more money? Why aren’t customers standing in line for our products? Can we ignore these approaches and not pay a heavy penalty down the road?
The items above are just a few that come to my mind, based on my own experience with Apple. How does your company compare?