Did Culture Shift At Apple Catch Forstall?

Apple announced on Oct 29 that Scott Forstall will be leaving the company. The outcome so far has been a hit to the stock price (this has been compounded by Apple letting go their recently-hired retail executive), and rumours of happier people inside Apple. The reason assumed for Scott’s departure was his refusal to sign an apology letter (that Tim Cook did sign) meant to atone for the iPhone Maps disaster. But other whispers indicate that there may have been a bigger problem brewing, and some of it may be due to a culture shift that appears to be occurring inside Apple since Steve shuffled off his mortal coil. Culturally, Apple has been changing, and from the little I’ve heard (none from insiders, I don’t have that kind of inside scoop), and from what I’ve seen overtly, the “old ways” aren’t necessarily going to cut it.

The “We Know What We’re Doing, Get Out Of Our Way” Apple

Apple under Steve was very much “just get it done, but do it ‘right’, do it our way, damn the consequences”, with ‘right’ being whatever Apple/Steve said it was. One side effect of this is that Apple rarely, if ever, apologized for anything. The closest to an “apology” while Steve was still in command was during antennagate. Even then, as apologies go, it wasn’t exactly a heartfelt performance. The session was as much as about Apple saying “see, everyone else is just as bad” as it was attempting to atone for what appears to be a design flaw in an otherwise gorgeous device. Sure, Apple gave everyone a free bumper or case, but considering that these parts cost pennies and sell for tens of dollars, this wasn’t exactly a huge hit to the bottom line. It made Apple look good, but again, it really wasn’t as much an apology as an attempt to set some new standard for what is “acceptable” for antenna performance.

Apple under Steve was also not a company that would reverse course easily. As an organization, changing course (particularly reversing some decisions) was admitting error or failure. Apple has never really liked to do that. Mistakes often just “disappear”. Changes made as a result of learning from mistakes were rarely treated as “lessons” but instead are positioned as “look how innovative we are”. Granted, any “innovation” made because of customer feedback was certainly touted as such. Much of the second generation AppleTV presentation by Steve was about lessons learned from what customers wanted. The one group of people Apple can sometimes be be responsive to are customers. But learning lessons pointed out by competitors (or by an absence of sales) tends to fall into a Reality Distortion Field that turns these into “look what we figured out, by ourselves, aren’t we smart”.

The “We Can Learn From Our Mistakes” Apple

Under Tim Cook, we’ve seen a different Apple when it comes to mistakes or bad decisions. Consider Apple’s EPEAT fiasco, one of their own making. The decision to withdraw from EPEAT was made by “old Apple” culture. Basically, they believed their own standard was as good or better than the standards set by an outside body, and everyone should trust them on that point. In essence, they figured they knew what they were doing, and they were doing it better. But their customers disagreed with them. The EPEAT standards have some transparency. They have a degree of independence and objectivity. Apple’s internal standards lacked that.

Under Steve, Apple would likely have fought tooth and nail to defend their decision, and may have eventually changed their mind once the furor died down. Tim Cook didn’t do that. Apple reversed course in about 48 hours, admitted their mistake and corrected it. And they did this loudly and publicly. Yes, they did briefly try to defend the decision to drop EPEAT, but that didn’t last more than half a day.

Tim was again quite visible, and very apologetic, about the Maps issues. Instead of trying to play it down, or show “see, the other guys are as bad as we are, just in different ways”, Apple stood up and said “yup, we screwed up, and we need to fix it”. Okay, Apple did start to revert to the “we’re no worse than the other guys” defence briefly, but like defending the EPEAT decision, it appears that was scuppered rapidly.

I am going to guess that this decision to simply admit fault didn’t sit well with an Apple executive that was used to acting on the “we know what we’re doing, get out of the way” approach to handling problems and issues. The description of the rumoured issues within Apple this Forbes piece sounds like the Steve Jobs described by various sources: he’s right, everyone else is wrong unless they prove otherwise, and you had damn well better be right. This, however, does not sound like the Apple of Tim Cook.

Was It Right?

Presuming that Scott was fired primarily because of a refusal to apologize for Maps (but recognizing his departure was probably a symptom of deeper issues), a question that arises is: was it right?  In a simplistic view of the world, the person in charge should apologize for the mistakes of their team. A simple view says that someone in command is responsible for both the good and the bad. If they won’t stand up and take responsibility for the bad, they need to be replaced. Again, from a very simple point of view, this decision was “right”.

But in the real world, things are rarely that simple. Again, it sounds like there were bigger problems brewing, and that a cultural shift is underway inside Apple. This is an Apple that can, and will, admit when it makes mistakes. It is one that is less likely to prevaricate and justify and “explain away” things. The whole Maps mess may simply have been the last in a series of events we don’t know about that was leading in this direction. Even if Maps hadn’t fallen flat on its face, it is entirely possible that Scott was going to be shown the door anyways. The Maps issue provides a publicly visible reason for doing so. But I would suspect that there were other forces at work here.

Ultimately, I guess it depends on which Apple you are talking about, and just how much accountability an executive should have for the products they are responsible for. I’m not sure that Apple under Steve would have let Scott go for this, but then I’m not sure that Apple under Steve would have apologized in the first place. So, for someone presuming Apple hasn’t changed, Scott’s departure would seem to be unusual. However, if Apple is changing, and there were other tensions building between Scott and others in the company, his departure shouldn’t necessarily be a surprise.

Rebuilding A Success Story

While the issue of Apple’s short-lived retail chief, John Browett, is raising other questions about Tim Cook and his team, it also shows a company that appears to be ready to fix problems they’ve created sooner rather than later. But the issue with Scott is different, because he has been with the team for a while. It could be an indication of bigger changes to come with Apple.

Apple is in a tough spot right now. They have been accused of not innovating as much as they have in the past (despite this being patently false. A review of Apple product history shows far more instances of refinement of an idea than outright reinvention). But financially they are still in great shape. Revenues and profits continue to grow. Product sales continue to grow. It would be tempting to try to ride this for as long as possible without making any serious changes.

But presumably Tim Cook and his team know that this kind of momentum only lasts for so long. They only have to look up the Pacific coast to see how far momentum can take you before it starts to slow down: Microsoft. Microsoft has done virtually nothing “innovative” in the past 15 years. Windows 95 and Windows NT were a huge leap forward. The XBox was a gamble, and it paid off. But since then? Not much. Microsoft has ridden their market dominance for a long time, and now that market is under attack. Microsoft has no idea what to do about it, and their only response is largely “do more of the same, just harder or louder”. The Metro interface is the first real change in the look and feel for Microsoft software in over a decade, but in some ways, it may be coming too late.

Apple needs to avoid becoming another “remember when” company that rests on its laurels. To do that means they have to remake the team, and try to get it right. And do this while trying to not mess up a company that is continuing to see stunning profitability and incredible growth. Part of changing the team also means changing the culture. It means nothing to changes the faces if you play the game the same way (and the players aren’t up to the challenge). To those that lament that “Steve would never have done this”, it’s time to realize that Steve isn’t there. Tim Cook is in charge, and this is going to be a company made in the image that Tim Cook and his team want it to be made in. It will be different. Things will change. And some of the “old guard” are going to get caught up in it. Adapt or leave. That’s all that any person can do, and it looks like Scott wasn’t prepared to adapt, or wasn’t expected to adapt.