A recent Time Canada cover story ponders Apple’s peculiar success and highlights a couple unusual reasons for it. Both reasons skew generalist: non-specialized production and a high-level of internal cross-pollination.
While most high-tech firms focus on one or two sectors, Apple does all of them at once. Apple makes its own hardware (iBooks and iMacs), it makes the operating system that runs on that hardware (Mac OS X), and it makes programs that run on that operating system (iTunes, iMovie, Safari Web browser, etc.). It also makes the consumer-electronics devices that connect to all those things (the rapidly multiplying iPod family), and it runs the online service that furnishes content to those devices (iTunes Music Store). If you smooshed together Microsoft, Dell and Sony into one company, you would have something like the diversity of the Apple technological biosphere.
Why would anybody run a business like that? If you follow conventional wisdom, Apple is doing it all wrong. Try to do everything at once, and you won’t do anything well. …
Apple employees talk incessantly about what they call “deep collaboration” or “cross-pollination” or “concurrent engineering.” Essentially it means that products don’t pass from team to team. There aren’t discrete, sequential development stages. Instead, it’s simultaneous and organic. Products get worked on in parallel by all departments at once—design, hardware, software—in endless rounds of interdisciplinary design reviews. Managers elsewhere boast about how little time they waste in meetings; Apple is big on them and proud of it. “The historical way of developing products just doesn’t work when you’re as ambitious as we are,” says Ive, an affable, bearlike Brit. “When the challenges are that complex, you have to develop a product in a more collaborative, integrated way.”
And it’s true, it is an odd way of doing business and a tough road to success. Generalism comes much easier to individuals and very small teams than it does to larger organizations the size of Apple. For the same two reasons. It is much easier, less expensive and not terribly burdensome for a single person to try (and perhaps fail) at numerous initiatives. Organizations, on the other hand, must choose markets, focus resources, hire specialists and define themselves simply. Likewise, with collaboration and the intermingling of insights. One person or one small room of people can communicate internally quite naturally – very naturally in the case of an individual. Bigger orgs need process and meetings and the willpower to blend perspectives and avoid departmental cliques. Apple necessarily has process and specialized departments too but it’s ability to accommodate generalist traits probably plays a big role in its winning streak.