Apple’s Quality Fail. And How Not to Have It Happen to You.

So I’ve been bouncing along using my iPhone, iPad and Macs for years, and, like the proverbial frog in boiling water, have been putting up with stuff. I won’t bore you with a list of irritations — we all have them (*oh, OK, I’ll put one at the bottom of the post). I had workarounds. I rebooted regularly. And then on Monday I read Jean-Louis Gassee and found myself nodding in recognition — quality problems! bad design choices! — and the water suddenly seemed pretty frickin’ hot:

I’ve gotten a bad feeling about Apple’s software quality management. “It Just Works”, the company’s pleasant-sounding motto, became an easy target, giving rise to jibes of “it just needs more work”

It turns out his awakening was triggered by Marco Arment’s post which in turn started a general pile on (he later posted that he regretted his original — but the train was many miles away by that time, and gathering speed).

I have tremendous admiration for what Apple has achieved in the past fifteen years. The tech world has never seen anything like it, and may not for a while. Heck, the business world has never seen anything like it. So rather than putting our own boot in , let’s look at how this can happen, even in a very highly functioning company like Apple, and maybe learn some things about how we can avoid a Quality WTF of our own.


Establish in the Culture that Quality Matters

Easy to say. In fact, almost everybody says it. Executives love to say it (I’ve done it myself). Doing it takes work, and a real prioritization of effort at multiple levels of the organization. Here are some suggestions:

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So What Makes a Good Leader, Anyway?

In a recent post, I defined a leader:

“A leader is somebody with the ability to cause a group of people to affect change”

This was the first step in describing a practical, actionable model of leadership — a model we can actually use in building startups and high-growth organizations.


So what makes a good leader?

As with a definition of leadership, we can find many takes, often with a vague, almost mystical point of view.

Here are a couple of shots at it from Business Week

“Leadership is when you give of yourself for the greater good of others with no expectation of reward. It’s that willingness to jump in a ditch with your whole team so that the next time they fall in, everyone understands the best and easiest way to get out.” — Roxanne Reed, executive director of the Military Spouse Foundation.

“(Leadership is) the ability to make your followers believe that you possess superior knowledge of the situation, greater wisdom to cope with the unknown, or greater moral force” — Tom Hopkins, author of 14 books, including “How to Master the Art of Selling” (Business Plus, 2005).

Neither of these work for me: working with no expectation of reward is completely admirable, but isn’t going to fly in Silicon Valley. And trying to make your followers believe you have superior knowledge in a high-growth tech company is probably the quickest way to fail as a leader.

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What Is a Leader Exactly? And Why Do We Care?

Why Bother Defining Leadership?

Defining leadership can feel like a theoretical discussion. It’s not. A practical, usable definition of leadership gives us a powerful tool. With it, we can carefully and consciously develop ourselves and others as leaders, which in turn allows us to carefully and consciously develop the organization as a whole.


We Need An Actionable Definition

So if leadership is our goal, we need a definition. And we need it to be clear and actionable — that is, we need a definition that works in the day to day — that lets us recognize clearly when we, and others who work for and around us, are leading, and when we are not.

But when we look at existing definitions of leadership, they frequently have a theoretical, almost mystical vagueness:

“ …leadership is like the Abominable Snowman, whose footprints are everywhere but who is nowhere to be seen” Bennis & Nanus: ‘Leaders: Strategies for Taking Charge’ (1997)

“Leadership is a function of knowing yourself, having a vision that is well communicated, building trust among colleagues, and taking effective action to realize your own leadership potential.” Warren Bennis

“Leadership is influence — nothing more, nothing less.” John Maxwell, 1998

Or we get definitions which are pithy to the point of being useless:

“Leadership is a combination of strategy and character. If you must be without one, be without the strategy.”- Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf

“The only definition of a leader is someone who has followers” Peter Drucker

We need a definition which is practical. One which can drive our own development and that of others.

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Ignoring Reality Whilst Using Lean Startup: Four Scenes You Will Recognize

Fear, Uncertainty, Attachment and Mindfulness

(notes partly inspired by a talk by Dan Millstein at the Lean Startup Conference 2014, and thoughts on mindfulness and the Lean Startup).

It is in our nature to be fearful of uncertainty and loss (of status, money, plans). It is in our nature to be attached to things we have created, even if they are only ideas and prototypes.

The Lean Startup provides us with techniques to test our assumptions against reality at an early stage, when our attachment to them is relatively young and before we have invested time, energy and money into realizing them.

Since we are so fearful of loss, the longer we allow an idea to develop without being challenged, the more difficult it becomes to face up to testing them — the potential loss has grown massively with the investments we have made.

This is the central failing of countless doomed projects: having proceeded without testing the core assumptions, there is now too much invested to take the risk of facing reality in the present. If we look, it might all be lost! So there is only work, moving forward to ultimate failure.

Confronting reality is much more of an emotional challenge than a rational one. We hate loss, and we hate uncertainty, and our reactions to fear come from our emotional mind, not our rational one. Our emotions overwhelm our ability think clearly.

The practice of mindfulness is a tool which lets us detach, even a little, from our fears. It allows us to see fear and uncertainty without becoming overwhelmed by them. It gives our rational mind space to work.

These are some places where a practice of mindfulness may help you and your team, work with reality to build something that fits, that works, that meshes with the world as it is.

Fear is the mind-killer.

Frank Herbert, Dune. (yeah, I know. but it’s helped me over the years).

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The Fatal Flaw in the Lean Startup Model. And How to Fix It.

The Problem With Reality

Human beings don’t like reality much.   It’s awkward.   It’s messy.   It gets in the way of our plans.  It’s unpredictable, organic and dense in ways we’d rather not acknowledge.  We know we live in it, but we really like to pretend that we don’t.

We avoid difficult facts, we shade our thinking, and we use language to obscure what’s going on (“we’re looking forward to right-sizing our organization”).  We listen to music, watch TV, make up stories, and put a huge amount of effort into creating technologies that take us as far away from the irritating rub of the real as we can: drugs, screens, headphones, streaming, wireless and the Oculus Rift. 

This problem hasn’t escaped the notice of thinkers through the ages, who have left us their advice:

Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them – that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.

 — Lao Tzu


Startups and Reality – A Troubled Relationship

From the very beginning of my work in startups I have been fascinated by the relationship between startup organizations and reality.  It is, I would say, troubled.

A startup needs reality.  In the end, somebody has to buy the product for more money than it takes to produce (obvious?   you’d be surprised).   Reality has to accommodate the changes that a startup is banking (literally) on making.   So you would think that people running startups with have some respect for reality, listen to what she was saying, take her into account.

But very often, reality is deeply disrespected.   Startup leaders make assumptions, take her for granted and believe that she is on their side.   Indeed, they believe that reality has a side to take, rather than just being.

Startup leaders make statements about reality, like:

  • “it’s going to ship in October!” (independent of number of engineers, technical feasibility, rate of progress)
  • “we’re guaranteeing $2M in the first year!” (independent of market size, pricing variability, customer acceptance)
  • customers love the new version” (based on a couple of chats with customers in a social setting)

If you’ve spent any time in startups, you can provide your own.


Reality Always Wins.

Isn’t it wonderful that reality always wins?  

 — Deb Burkmann, Yoga Teacher

If you don’t have enough engineers, or the technical work is too daunting, you won’t ship in October.   If there is no addressable market, you won’t make $2M in the first year.  If performance is limited by some fundamental constant, well, then it’s a problem.

But before completely give up our agency, and decide there’s nothing we can do,  let’s consider the other, opposing force.  To begin a startup, you must have, to some degree, the idea that reality is malleable – after all, your goal is to build something that didn’t exist before, and have many (hopefully) millions of people change their lives by using it.  So you must start with the notion that you can, in fact, change reality.   Or at least add to it.

And that’s a large part of the buzz of doing a startup!   We can shrug off the irritating framework we’re stuck with and make something better, different – alter the world around us a bit.  Given how troublesome reality is, it’s no wonder that changing it can seem so exciting.

Reality is wrong. Dreams are for real.

 — Tupac Shakur

So a startup needs a healthy relationship with reality.  After all, we are trying to change her, nudge her along a little bit, make her a little less chaotic, lean a little more in our favor.

In which case, it might be a good idea to have a little respect.  Listen to what she’s saying. 

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