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Leadership and the Failure of the Apple Car

Apple recently did something that it isn’t in the habit of doing. And that is – admitting failure. After spending $ 10 billion on ‘Project Titan’ whose aim was to produce a ‘really cool car,’ Apple decided to pull the pin and cancel it.

Simplifying Apple’s Project Titan ambitions to something as pithy as creating a ‘really cool car’ might seem a little condescending. The problem for Apple was that unfortunately, this was the practical truth. And that is why if failed.

Car Dashboard with streaks of light in the foreground.

Apple couldn’t decide if it wanted to produce an electric car (think Tesla vehicles), an autonomous car (thing Google’s Waymo vehicles), or both. It flipped and flopped between different ambitions, which means that regardless of the credentials of the ‘leaders’ charged with making this a reality, there was essentially a constant leadership vacuum. All because everyone had different ideas on what the ‘really cool car’ should be.

Steve Jobs would have never allowed this to happen. He satisfied most contemporary definitions of ‘being a jerk,’ and to this day those who worked for him struggle to characterize his leadership style in a positive way. But the reason he was so successful was that he was able to envision very quickly what a particular product needed to be, and then keep a zealot like focus on that (and only that) product across the organization. And that is very appealing to engineers, designers and the like whose concept of self worth often heavily relies on being able to feel like they were important elements in the creation of something amazing. Something they can be proud of.

One of the often-quoted principles of leadership is ‘selection and maintenance of the aim [of your organization].’ This has so many follow-on benefits, such as allowing the bright young people who work for you being able to buy into whatever it is they are doing. If what they are doing routinely changes, there is no buy in. There is nothing to buy into.

Apple devices photographed from above: a computer and apple watch are visible with the models hands typing on the keyboard of the Macbook.

So Apple loses big time. Not just in terms of the $ 10 billion it lost. But because the more than two thousand people who were working for them are not going to meekly shuffle to another role in the organization. The talented ones will be blessed with all sorts of choices for their future employment, and they are more likely than you think to be drawn to organizations like young start up companies. The inherent risk of doing this is often outweighed by knowing they are working as part of a team which has an existential focus on a single idea. That allows buy in.

So what did Apple do wrong to get here? Simple. It stopped doing Apple things. It’s not as if it isn’t possible to create electric or autonomous vehicles. Nor is Apple strapped for resources.

Project Titan was as much an effort to stop talent being drawn to organizations like Tesla. Say what you want about Tesla’s workplace culture, you know exactly what products you are working on when you sign up. When the main focus being something besides the product itself, constantly changing ideas of what that product was supposed to be quickly becomes the norm.

We see this issue all around us. We see (for example) militaries across the world routinely contract to a few behemoths of companies who for whatever reason seem to be the only ones those militaries ever go to. Each behemoth has been paid to design and build everything from armoured vehicles through to communications systems and everything in between. Regardless of how big or small an organization is, it is the most junior designers and engineers who undertake the work that turns something from an idea into a reality. And because these behemoths don’t actually ‘have’ a workforce outside of contracts, the bright young things come and go like nomads. They either becoming used to never being able to buy into anything (and start going through the motions), or perhaps looking for cool opportunities like the one Project Titan promised to be.

The reality is that most designers and producers, regardless of scale, are successful if (and only if) they have a really clear idea of what it is they are trying to build. And part of this is having a really clear idea of what customers and users want, and how it will be used. And it is no secret that these organizations tend to be the ones who create reliable, quality stuff as well … mainly because they know exactly how the customers and users will benefit from them in a way that they will pay good money for.

So the lesson here is not rush to create a project, division, think tank or anything else until you have truly understood what it is you are trying to do. If you are trying to think of the thing you are trying to do after you have been told you need to do it (think Apple), then you are in trouble. Especially if you can’t afford to lose $ 10 billion.


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