Speaking and listening are among the most basic elements of human interaction. Finding a right balance between the two allows us to test our ideas and strategies and then improve them based on the feedback we get from people who love us, people who work with us and people who follow us in social media.
So when Bob Mansfield, senior vice president of hardware engineering at Apple recognized that their plans of removing all their products from the EPEAT environmental rating system was a mistake, it first seemed like a schoolbook case of human interaction. But at closer look, the incident might reveal a major weakness in Apples business strategy – constantly being opaque in a world that is expecting more transparency.
Apple have become known and loved for their ability to create desirable products that are so intuitive and simple to interact with that they are shipped without operating manuals. But outside their own territory, the closed system that is iTunes and Appstore, the way Apple interact with the rest of the world leave a lot to desire.
When drawings of its new donut-shaped headquarters surfaced, social media buzzed about how the architecture seemed to embody what the Apple brand stand for in terms of cool factor and its innovative design. But the building, with its vast rounded glass facades is also a symbol for everything the Apple culture isn’t.
Not only is the company not very transparent to the outside world, the internal culture is often equally opaque. As described in Adam Lashinsky’s book “Inside Apple”, different teams work independently, have gotten used to new security systems being installed and new walls being erected in office spaces without explanation.
In addition, I’ve learned that not only do most teams have no idea what most of their colleagues are working on; new team managers also get education in the art of sharing disinformation in order to identify leaks if necessary. Apple is so secret that employees even have trouble hanging out with each other after hours, afraid of accidently sharing something with a colleague. Now wonder why most new Apple releases are as much news internally as they are externally.
Comparing the people I know at Apple with my friends at Google they come across as equally intelligent, loyal and proud of their respective companies. But when the Google-people seem to be in constant conversation about their latest services or about things that are in public beta, the folks at Apple are strangely silent, even about the few things that obviously need some perfecting. (Yes Siri, I’m talking about you.)
Let me be clear: I don’t envision anyone sharing secrets or using conversation as a way of trying to figure out what people want. But I do expect companies of today being able master the balance between transparency and secrecy, internally and externally, in order to get rapid and invaluable feedback on upcoming products or launched services.
I’m convinced that the embarrassing on-of-relationship with EPEAT and the social media critique that followed could easily have been avoided had Apple only listened to their own employees. One intelligent, social-media-savvy, bike-riding, planet-loving, organic-eating bunch of people, they would conclusively had questioned any idea to leave EPEAT had the management at Apple aired such a stupid idea internally before going public with it.
But it seems like Apple’s inability to harnessing the power of transparency that is the dark side of Steve Jobs legacy, an Achilles heel of the God of gadgets for the 21st century and a weakness that continue to cause damages in the trust of the company, among consumers.
Apple’s inability to disclose environmental performance on its products annoyed customer for ages until Apple finally got their act together. Apple’s inability to disclose more about if and how they were working with Foxconn to improve worker conditions was like a sore at the company that eventually caused Bloomberg Businessweek to do that infamous inside story that confirmed misgivings but that had been unnecessary had Apple taken allegations seriously earlier. And now, Apple’s inability to disclose ideas internally before taking them public caused yet another embarrassing defeat three days later when the decision was reversed and Mansfield published his apology.
For a company that is an example when it comes to producing simple and frictionless user experiences, Apple also serve as an example of how difficult and filled with friction your relationship with the public opinion becomes if you don’t understand transparency.
And yet the lesson is as easy as the remedy: if you don’t give people the chance to speak, you can’t get the benefit of listen to their ideas. It’s called human interaction.