Here is an excerpt from an article written by Joel M. Podolny and Morten T. Hansen for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.
Credit: Mikael Jansson/Trunk Archive
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Apple is well known for its innovations in hardware, software, and services. Thanks to them, it grew from some 8,000 employees and $7 billion in revenue in 1997, the year Steve Jobs returned, to 137,000 employees and $260 billion in revenue in 2019. Much less well known are the organizational design and the associated leadership model that have played a crucial role in the company’s innovation success.
When Jobs arrived back at Apple, it had a conventional structure for a company of its size and scope. It was divided into business units, each with its own P&L responsibilities. General managers ran the Macintosh products group, the information appliances division, and the server products division, among others. As is often the case with decentralized business units, managers were inclined to fight with one another, over transfer prices in particular. Believing that conventional management had stifled innovation, Jobs, in his first year returning as CEO, laid off the general managers of all the business units (in a single day), put the entire company under one P&L, and combined the disparate functional departments of the business units into one functional organization.
The adoption of a functional structure may have been unsurprising for a company of Apple’s size at the time. What is surprising—in fact, remarkable—is that Apple retains it today, even though the company is nearly 40 times as large in terms of revenue and far more complex than it was in 1998. Senior vice presidents are in charge of functions, not products. As was the case with Jobs before him, CEO Tim Cook occupies the only position on the organizational chart where the design, engineering, operations, marketing, and retail of any of Apple’s main products meet. In effect, besides the CEO, the company operates with no conventional general managers: people who control an entire process from product development through sales and are judged according to a P&L statement.
Business history and organizational theory make the case that as entrepreneurial firms grow large and complex, they must shift from a functional to a multidivisional structure to align accountability and control and prevent the congestion that occurs when countless decisions flow up the org chart to the very top. Giving business unit leaders full control over key functions allows them to do what is best to meet the needs of their individual units’ customers and maximize their results, and it enables the executives overseeing them to assess their performance. As the Harvard Business School historian Alfred Chandler documented, U.S. companies such as DuPont and General Motors moved from a functional to a multidivisional structure in the early 20th century. By the latter half of the century the vast majority of large corporations had followed suit. Apple proves that this conventional approach is not necessary and that the functional structure may benefit companies facing tremendous technological change and industry upheaval.
Apple’s commitment to a functional organization does not mean that its structure has remained static. As the importance of artificial intelligence and other new areas has increased, that structure has changed. Here we discuss the innovation benefits and leadership challenges of Apple’s distinctive and ever-evolving organizational model, which may be useful for individuals and companies wanting to better understand how to succeed in rapidly changing environments.
Why a Functional Organization?
Apple’s main purpose is to create products that enrich people’s daily lives. That involves not only developing entirely new product categories such as the iPhone and the Apple Watch, but also continually innovating within those categories. Perhaps no product feature better reflects Apple’s commitment to continuous innovation than the iPhone camera. When the iPhone was introduced, in 2007, Steve Jobs devoted only six seconds to its camera in the annual keynote event for unveiling new products. Since then iPhone camera technology has contributed to the photography industry with a stream of innovations: High dynamic range imaging (2010), panorama photos (2012), True Tone flash (2013), optical image stabilization (2015), the dual-lens camera (2016), portrait mode (2016), portrait lighting (2017), and night mode (2019) are but a few of the improvements.
Apple leaders need deep expertise, immersion in details, and collaborative debate.
To create such innovations, Apple relies on a structure that centers on functional expertise. Its fundamental belief is that those with the most expertise and experience in a domain should have decision rights for that domain. This is based on two views: First, Apple competes in markets where the rates of technological change and disruption are high, so it must rely on the judgment and intuition of people with deep knowledge of the technologies responsible for disruption. Long before it can get market feedback and solid market forecasts, the company must make bets about which technologies and designs are likely to succeed in smartphones, computers, and so on. Relying on technical experts rather than general managers increases the odds that those bets will pay off.
Second, Apple’s commitment to offer the best possible products would be undercut if short-term profit and cost targets were the overriding criteria for judging investments and leaders. Significantly, the bonuses of senior R&D executives are based on companywide performance numbers rather than the costs of or revenue from particular products. Thus product decisions are somewhat insulated from short-term financial pressures. The finance team is not involved in the product road map meetings of engineering teams, and engineering teams are not involved in pricing decisions.
We don’t mean to suggest that Apple doesn’t consider costs and revenue goals when deciding which technologies and features the company will pursue. It does, but in ways that differ from those employed by conventionally organized companies. Instead of using overall cost and price targets as fixed parameters within which to make design and engineering choices, R&D leaders are expected to weigh the benefits to users of those choices against cost considerations.
In a functional organization, individual and team reputations act as a control mechanism in placing bets. A case in point is the decision to introduce the dual-lens camera with portrait mode in the iPhone 7 Plus in 2016. It was a big wager that the camera’s impact on users would be sufficiently great to justify its significant cost.
One executive told us that Paul Hubel, a senior leader who played a central role in the portrait mode effort, was “out over his skis,” meaning that he and his team were taking a big risk: If users were unwilling to pay a premium for a phone with a more costly and better camera, the team would most likely have less credibility the next time it proposed an expensive upgrade or feature. The camera turned out to be a defining feature for the iPhone 7 Plus, and its success further enhanced the reputations of Hubel and his team.
It’s easier to get the balance right between an attention to costs and the value added to the user experience when the leaders making decisions are those with deep expertise in their areas rather than general managers being held accountable primarily for meeting numerical targets. Whereas the fundamental principle of a conventional business unit structure is to align accountability and control, the fundamental principle of a functional organization is to align expertise and decision rights.
Thus the link between how Apple is organized and the type of innovations it produces is clear. As Chandler famously argued, “structure follows strategy”—even though Apple doesn’t use the structure that he anticipated large multinationals would adopt.
Now let’s turn to the leadership model underlying Apple’s structure.
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Here is a direct link to the complete article.
Joel M. Podolny is the dean and vice president of Apple University in Cupertino, California. The former dean of the Yale School of Management, Podolny was a professor at Harvard Business School and the Stanford Graduate School of Business.
Morten T. Hansen (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and a faculty member at Apple University, Apple. He is the author of Great at Work and Collaboration and co-author of Great by Choice. He was named one of the top management thinkers in the world by the Thinkers50 in 2019. Find him on Twitter: @MortentHansen.