Sometimes I marvel at the sleek little rectangle I carry around with me every day. Often, I take it for granted.
In all honesty, I’ve broken quite a few of them.
But when I’m reminded of all that goes into engineering this magic box in my pocket, I think to myself, how could a company possibly achieve something like this? (And why don’t I put a case on it?)
A single device, endless functionality. Phone, computer, camera, music player, GPS, the list goes on and on.
So, I did some research.
Love the company or hate it, it’s undeniable that Apple has developed one of the most unique company cultures to enable sustained evolution.
Its organizational design and leadership model play central roles in its storied successes.
If you’re seeking information about adjusting your culture to succeed in changing environments, look no further. Apple is a prime example that learning, expertise, attention to detail, and debating collaboratively are cornerstones of continuous evolution.
Trial by Fire
In 1997, late CEO Steve Jobs famously fired every general manager at Apple in a single day. He then proceeded to set up a functional organization, one based on domain expertise rather than individual business units.
In one fell swoop, Jobs put the entire company under one profit and loss statement. Managers started to receive judgment and bonuses based on the performance of the entire company, not on costs or revenue.
Jobs believed that Apple’s structure at the time severely limited the company’s ability to innovate. His vision was one of experts leading experts, not one of professional management leading the way with no true understanding of the fine details of the functions they preside over.
These measures removed financial pressures from the short-term equation. Expert leaders became the ones to make big design and engineering decisions, rather than general managers concerned with meeting narrow-minded cost and price targets. This allowed Apple to more effectively serve its main purpose of creating products that enrich people’s daily lives.
Apple still maintains (and builds upon) this functional structure today — a remarkable feat for a company that has since more than 40x’d its revenue and 8x’d its workforce. CEO Tim Cook holds the only position where design, engineering, operations, marketing, and retail intersect.
There are three characteristics all leaders at Apple are expected to possess, as Joel M. Podolny and Morten T. Hansen of Apple University describe in their HBR article, How Apple Is Organized for Innovation:
“deep expertise that allows them to meaningfully engage in all the work being done within their individual functions; immersion in the details of those functions; and a willingness to collaboratively debate other functions during collective decision-making.”
Hiring and developing leaders that exhibit these traits puts Apple in a position to make well-informed, coordinated decisions in the name of innovation and customer enrichment.
Apple is a trailblazer in the tech world. But ideas and the execution to realize them don’t come from just anywhere; Apple researches and gambles on which new technologies and product features will succeed, then appoints managers that are also technical experts to increase their odds of success.
World-class talent flock toward teams led by specialized experts. If you had the choice to play a professional sport, wouldn’t you want to play for a team alongside some of the world’s best athletes? With some of the best coaches and managers?
Apple adopted this leadership mentality in the mid-1980s after hiring professional management that proved to be several intellectual steps removed from the functions they were responsible for.
From Jobs himself: “You know who the best managers are? They are the great individual contributors who never, ever want to be a manager but decide they have to be…because no one else is going to…do as good a job.”
It’s easier to train an expert to manage well than to train a manager to be an expert.
Specialists learn from other specialists that otherwise would have been siloed within their own product lines, had Apple not changed its organizational structure. All the while, employees at Apple seek guidance and mentorship that their expert managers so deftly provide.
The shift toward a functional structure enhanced Apple’s collective expertise, improved its problem-solving ability, and accelerated its innovative capacity.
Devil in the Details
Apple operates on the belief that leaders should know the details of their organization three levels down. Few organizations truly delve into the details to the extent Apple does.
For example: observe the shape of your iPhone (don’t have one? Well, I know you’ve seen one). Notice those curved edges? In the design community, those are known as “squircles.” What seems to be a simple and slight adjustment in the curvature — from the arc of a circle to a subtler contour — demanded a dizzying amount of granularity and attention to detail at every level of the company.
Leaders are hyper-aware of which details truly matter and where to focus their own expertise. This detail orientation spreads like wildfire to each function and each employee.
Relentless attention to detail is one of Apple’s countless forms of quality control, and when everyone is committed to it, few things can slip through the cracks.
The result? Disruptive innovations, satisfied customers, and leaders who are keenly tuned into the finer points of their function and its constituents.
Willingness to Collaboratively Debate
No function at Apple is solely responsible for any product or service. Collaboration is tantamount to success.
Apple is uniquely capable of regularly bringing innovative ideas to market because of its ability to collaboratively debate. Everyone discusses, disputes, and builds in tandem to approach the best solution. This requires leaders not only to be detail-oriented and to advocate for their own strongly-held beliefs, but also to be willing to change their minds in the presence of promising but challenging ideas. Podolny and Hansen write:
“A leader’s ability to be both partisan and open-minded is facilitated by two things: deep understanding of and devotion to the company’s values and common purpose, and a commitment to separating how right from how hard a particular path is so that the difficulty of executing a decision doesn’t prevent its being selected.”
Apple’s leaders do not accept difficulty as an excuse for failing to develop an idea that would positively benefit users and their experiences with products.
Expert leaders are accountable for the success of projects, but they have little control over all the other teams that have their hands in the cookie jar. This can lead to messy processes, but in almost all cases, Apple comes out wildly successful on the other side of innovative ideas.
Bad messes only occur when the teams involved lose sight of shared goals. In those cases, the leaders of those teams are dealt with promptly, or removed from their leadership positions altogether.
Leadership at Scale: With Great Power…
In 2006, one year before it unveiled the iPhone, Apple had around 17,000 employees. Today that number steadily crawls past 150,000. Compare that to some 50 VPs Apple employed in 2006 versus approximately 100 today.
This discrepancy in expansion means senior leaders have to lead more diverse teams with more experts, account for more details down their functional chains, and assume responsibilities that are sometimes far beyond their own expertise.
As the company continues to expand, leaders must allocate time, energy, and expertise wisely. Some activities might fall within their realm of ownership, but often they need to learn to adapt to their new responsibilities.
For the remainder of activities that require less of their direct attention, they can teach others to do them, or delegate if they don’t have the requisite knowledge to teach.
Roger Rosner – Expert Leader
Roger Rosner, VP of applications at Apple, is a textbook example of leadership at scale.
He overcame several challenges as an expert leading experts. The size of his function expanded nearly tenfold over the course of a decade, and the number of projects he was charged to oversee became nearly unmanageable.
Beyond this, he had to absorb a litany of new responsibilities as Apple expanded the number and complexity of software applications under his jurisdiction, many of which were beyond his core area of expertise.
And if all that wasn’t enough, consider the extent of coordination required to make ends meet across each function involved in seeing these projects through to completion.
Simply put, Rosner refined his ability to lead experts.
He remained immersed in the details that are important to a senior leader, such as apps’ architecture and how they affect user engagement.
Experts don’t know everything — much of Rosner’s new responsibilities required him to learn. For instance, he pursued new and deep comprehension of things like digital ads, machine learning for personalized content, privacy protocols, and incentivizing publishers, all to effectively lead the engineering and design of the News app.
This is telling of Apple’s commitment to a beginner’s mindset, as Rosner and other leaders often found themselves needing to build their knowledge from the ground up. At Apple, It’s not uncommon for expert leaders to ask subordinates questions about the topics they’re leading!
The most important aspect of this leadership evolution is the ability to relinquish ownership of key responsibilities to others. Along with other top-level leaders, Rosner learned to teach others the things he did best (but couldn’t devote adequate time to) by critiquing his team’s work frequently and passionately.
Rosner also delegated some of these initiatives, like iMovie and GarageBand, to people who were suited with the skills and knowledge to do it better than he could. It wasn’t simply set-it-and-forget-it, though. He helped set objectives for the teams he assembled, then periodically monitored and reviewed their progress.
Delegation is a necessary skill for any manager, but managers at less successful companies more readily pass responsibilities to subordinates that they were better suited and capable of doing themselves.
Leaders like Rosner are willing and able to take on new responsibilities outside the scope of their own expertise, and teach and delegate effectively. This allows Apple to continue effectively innovating and evolving.
Making the changes Apple did to its organizational structure is by no means easy.
Allocating power to expert leaders, mandating an extreme level of scrutiny and detail, encouraging collaborative debate and iteration, and requiring ongoing learning from managers are daunting tasks no matter the size or reputation of a company.
To instill these same values in your own company’s culture, consider adopting a similar model of experts leading experts by choosing managers that have deep and relevant expertise, rather than appointing excellent general managers with no expertise. Discover which details of your product or service are most important to customers, and then be relentless in your pursuit to know everything about them. Create spaces for collaborative debate, and always champion learning as an ongoing and vital aspect of your business.
A functional structure and a focus on learning, expertise, details, and collaboration will benefit companies wanting to evolve and wow customers the way Apple wows me when I start pondering the mysteries of my handheld smartphone.
I think I’ll go buy a case. It deserves to be protected, given all the thought and effort it took to find its way into my somewhat clumsy hands.