How Apple overcame its culture of secrecy to create AirPods Pro

By Chris Deaver

May 06, 2022

How Apple overcame its culture of secrecy to create AirPods Pro

For years, people have wondered how Apple does it. How does the company innovate the way it does? How does it create such insanely great products that surprise and delight?

Few people know the struggle that it’s faced to get there. Like the great Michelangelo, Apple might say, “If people knew how hard I worked to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all.”

When I joined Apple in 2015 as an HR business partner, I marveled at the technical depth of its genius-level engineers. There seemed to be no problem they couldn’t solve. In a magical way, Apple had somehow brought together the best minds to create the best products in the world. But beyond the focus on innovating, it had a fundamental premise to the work: secrecy. This is a value it held dear, to preserve the “surprise and delight” for customers. The kind that arrives on the day of launch when nobody (not even most employees) anticipate how insanely great new products will be.

But this culture of secrecy had its dark sides. Hoarding of critical information. Pushing personal agendas. Infighting. As a new HR business partner, I was often pulled into these escalations. And it was usually about “that team not sharing.”

I started to wonder what this all meant. I’d hear one new employee after another, brilliant people, asking the essential question: “How do I operate like this? If I can only share information with certain people, how do I know who and when? I don’t want to end up fired or in jail.”

For those who were new to the company—including the vast majority of engineers—these dilemmas felt paralyzing. Meanwhile, with the product ecosystem growing and the technical challenges increasing, the need for collaboration grew. What to do, what to do?

I wrestled with this question, looking everywhere for answers until I saw an interview at Startup Grind with Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen. The same Clayton Christensen who’d written the book The Innovator’s Dilemma, which had inspired Steve Jobs to crack the code of disrupting one’s own company (think iPad). The interviewer asked Christensen what he thought about Apple. He said he worried a lot about a lot of companies, like a mother worries sometimes. Then he said he worried particularly about Apple. But he said that Apple would be just fine, if it could do this one thing that Steve did: spend time staring in the mirror, essentially asking, “What do I need to do differently?”

 

This hit me hard. And it prompted this thought: “Yes. But what’s that mirror?”

Apple was a company that had historically innovated as small teams of engineers building long-standing relationships. But times had changed. The company’s growing workforce and scale of new people in different places increased the demands for innovation to accelerate connection, convergence, and collaboration. Secrecy was getting in the way. And what we’d seen with the development of AirPods was an example of exactly what would happen when we hadn’t solved for it. Teams were innovating for months in silos only to finally converge in the eleventh hour before launch, ending up in five- or six-hour-long daily meetings, causing tremendous friction and burnout. People were frustrated. They wanted to leave or to “never work with that one person again.”

If we were to take AirPods to the next level, how could we do it in a more seamless, relationship-building way?

Customers don’t know those behind-the-scenes struggles of giving birth to the AirPods; just like most engineers who developed the AirPods didn’t know the AirPods would be such an explosively successful, meme-worthy product for the public, selling millions, and creating an entirely new category. But at what cost? And if we were to take AirPods to the next level, how could we do it in a more seamless, relationship-building way?

How Apple overcame its culture of secrecy to create AirPods Pro

[Photo: Apple]

From Covey to Catmull

At this time, Ian Clawson—a friend turned business partner—and I wrestled with the current climate of workplace cultures and the deficiencies found in leadership development. We’ve always had an affinity toward the ecosystem of timeless principles that Stephen Covey once presented to the world. We were both drawn to his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and the way its conclusion focused on synergy and interdependence—a refreshing shift from self to selflessness.

While Covey inspired people in their personal growth, we realized co-creation doesn’t belong at the end of the journey. Given the challenges cultures now face, co-creation must be front and center. We also realized that we didn’t want to become self-help gurus, but guides to help people bravely converge timeless principles with culture.

Here was a working braintrust that maybe we could expand and scale across Apple.

We’ve also been captivated by this notion of the braintrust that Ed Catmull, founder of Pixar, shares in his book, Creativity, Inc. Most people feel they don’t have creative license to make decisions at work, or the ability to contribute without express permission. While Pixar is a creative brand, it offers a template for channeling collective genius by encouraging the creative voice. Why don’t other companies do this? Most work cultures are loaded with bureaucracy and politics that squash creativity at first sight. The answer: Blending timeless principles and creativity—to inspire co-creation.

At the core, we wondered: What could principles tied to co-creation do to help bridge these silos found in companies like Apple?

Perhaps this was our “garage build moment,” similar to what Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak must have experienced when they started Apple. We were faced with the burden of trying to understand problems emerging in workplace cultures. We both were at a point in our careers where we could be brave enough to figure out solutions. We knew that a leader could not control what a culture becomes, but we also saw that people can influence and contribute to culture.

How could Apple have avoided the internal turmoil we faced with the development of AirPods? How do cultures take the shape they do? These questions and the inspired sessions with Ian, led me to form a mini braintrust at Apple. As a small group of HR partners, we started to explore this by getting curious about the Apple culture. When we unpacked it all, we started asking deeper, existential questions: Which leaders and teams innovate and collaborate best, and why?

We gathered a short list of people and sought to understand the elements that were key to their success. People in hardware. Software. Operations. We noticed a braintrust in the camera team that was a powerful example of collaboration. But no one outside of that team seemed to know much about it. It fascinated me that there was a braintrust, since I’d come from Disney and seen the power of Ed Catmull’s notion at Pixar of the braintrust—a collective team committed to “egos off the table, building blocks on the table.” Most people have heard that Steve Jobs had impacted Pixar, which he did. But here was an insight we hadn’t considered: Ed Catmull and Pixar had influenced Apple culture in a fundamental way. And, here was a working braintrust that maybe we could expand and scale across Apple. But what made it work and why? What were those key ingredients we could share?

Openness within a closed system

As we met leaders, what we found surprised us. While Apple was so clearly delineating secrecy as a fundamental value to the company, behind the scenes each of these leaders were highlighting the power of the one thing that made them successful: sharing. Priya Balasubramaniam in operations talked about it, emphasizing the need to share early with others. Angela Ahrendts in retail talked about it. Jony Ive’s industrial design team talked about it. Mattia Pascolini’s wireless design team also brought it to life. And Lynn Youngs, head of display, touch, and camera technology, shared this about how he applied sharing: “I come to the table with my ideas, and they come to the table with theirs. If we consider ideas ‘our kids,’ I have to care as much or more about ‘their kids’ as I do about mine for something magical to happen. And that’s real sharing. That’s innovation.”

Of course, not a single leader suggested going extreme in sharing, like Silicon Valley companies that spread product roadmaps to the public. That would spoil the surprise. But what we found was a level of openness in a famously closed system that involved far more sharing than anyone was talking about, and far more than new employees knew.

Part of this effort included partnering with people like Randy Nelson at Apple University, the same person who’d founded Pixar University. His views on the power of sharing and collaboration, like Ed Catmull suggested in the book Creativity, Inc., were key to challenging assumptions of what could be shared at Apple.

Yes, sharing could be done in the context of secrecy.

We also met with Ed Catmull himself, to expand the power of the braintrust. By then he was “Jedi-fading” out of Disney and Pixar into retirement, having established cultures of innovation through braintrust. He even told us that he was proud that not only was the Braintrust a meeting at Pixar, but also that it had become ingrained across the entire culture. This became our aspiration for Apple: What if the braintrust were infused everywhere in their DNA? What if we applied it to AirPods? They were the kind of company that could do it. But it would take a lot of work.

We discovered “The Camera Braintrust” (as in iPhone camera, or the cameras in any hardware devices), or “CBT,” and applied these key ingredients: a weekly cross-staff transparency session, focusing on a vulnerable or open approach to sharing challenges they were facing. Each leader and team with a voice, each sharing exactly where they were in their development, and what they needed from the other teams. This led to cycles of innovation that had accelerated the camera technology to new heights, making it the gold standard of collaboration.

When we saw how well the Camera Braintrust was working there, we wondered what would happen if we applied that same approach to the next iteration of AirPods: regular cross-staff sessions, transparency, and shared voice. What happened next was amazing: As teams converged with leaders becoming more open, connected, and driving higher quality collaboration than ever before. We spent time coaching, collaborating, and influencing key leaders and engineers driving the next frontier of AirPods. What emerged was a braintrust with regular sessions, openness, and connection that brought to life the insanely great, noise-canceling AirPods Pro. It was a testament to innovation, but also to the power of sharing. Yes, sharing could be done in the context of secrecy.

Next, we wondered, what if we expand this notion of braintrust everywhere else at Apple? We then brought this concept of Collaboration by Design to all of R&D at Apple. We shared it with the retail strategy team. And something special happened: Deeper collaboration and convergence on Apple Watch, PowerBeats Pro, MacBook, and iterations of iPhone. Leaders who seemed stuck on old methods of sharing were adapting. They were still thoughtful, but sharing more freely in circles across functions, by design, rather than avoiding it by default.

What emerged was a culture shift to what we called “Different Together,” the next-level notion for Apple’s future. Combining the power of the historic definition of “Think Different,” which highlighted the strength of infinite variety in voices, with the power of doing it all “Together.” All of this is enabled by being better at sharing.

What will Apple’s culture achieve next? Who knows. But the company is heading into a future where it’s far better prepared to innovate with co-creative braintrusting teams, even in challenging contexts like distributed workforces resulting from COVID-19. Now Apple can continue with collective confidence as it hits the gas on innovation—because “Different Together” now means the culture at Apple is making a difference together.

Looking back, during that time at Apple (which we consider our “beta test” for cracking the code on culture transformation), we believed co-creation can be applied to any domain. Now, we’ve zoomed out to ask the questions: How can any company transform its culture (especially when a lot is working already)? How do they break from cultural norms holding them back from shaping the future at the next level? These are the themes we continue to explore at our new consultancy, BraveCore.

Now that AI can do what knowledge workers have done in the past, the world is at a tipping point. The future belongs to the brave ones who can unleash the power of co-creation in their culture.


Along with Ian Clawson, Chris Deaver is cofounder of BraveCore, a leadership consultancy that helps leaders be more creative and creatives be better leaders. In past roles, he’s shaped culture transformation inside Apple and Disney.

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