How Apple overcame its culture of secrecy to create AirPods Pro

While AirPods Pro took several years to develop before launching in 2019, a small team of human resources managers pushed Apple to adopt a more transparent and less isolated work atmosphere for employees, breaking with the top-secret work culture. and isolated that leads to most of the company’s products.

A new way to work at Apple

The revelation comes from an article about Fast Company by Chris Deaver, a former human resources manager at Apple who worked at the company from 2015 to 2019. In the lengthy post, Deaver famously describes Apple’s strict culture. Secrecy and Confidentiality. Employees working on devices like Macs or iPads have no idea what teams working on iPhones or other products are doing, creating a strong sense of exclusion for some employees. Even within a product team, employees rarely see the big picture.

This culture of secrecy and information containment at Apple has often left employees working across different products and disciplines in uncomfortable dilemmas, not knowing who to talk to or who to keep secrets from for fear of legal or professional punishment. “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,” Deaver quoted an employee during his time at the company as saying.

Beyond personal dilemmas, the culture of secrecy has also caused friction between company teams. Deaver describes his role in the human resources department as having to deal with internal conflicts, which he says often stemmed from complaints from “that team he didn’t share.”

Deaver, along with his close business friend Ian Clawson, built a small team of HR experts and partners. Deaver said he was inspired by his experience watching the development of the original AirPods, which would have left staff exhausted and frustrated.

Teams innovated for months in silos only to finally converge in the 11th hour before launch, meeting in daily five or six hour meetings, causing enormous friction and burnout. People were frustrated. They wanted to leave or “never work with that person again.”

How could Apple have avoided the internal turmoil we faced while developing AirPods? How do cultures take the form they do? These questions and inspired sessions with Ian led me to form a mini trust in Apple. As a small group of HR partners, we began exploring these questions by looking at Apple’s culture.

airpods pro blue header

the brainstorm of this team ultimately led Apple to adopt a more transparent and collaborative work culture for AirPods Pro. Instead of separate groups working in silos, on the same products but unable to communicate or work together, Apple opted for a seamless workflow. open and fluid for AirPods Pro. In short, a more “normal” approach.

Teams converged with leaders who became more open, more connected, and fostered higher-quality collaboration than ever before. We spend time training, collaborating with, and influencing the key leaders and engineers driving the next frontier of AirPods. What emerged was an intellectual trust that, through regular sessions, openness, and connection, resulted in incredibly capable, noise-canceling AirPods Pro. It was a testament to innovation, but also to the power of sharing. Yes, it could be shared in the context of secrecy.

The new crop has been internally dubbed “Different Together”, a pun on Apple’s iconic “Think Different” campaign. Part of Apple’s priority for secrecy is to prevent leaks and rumors about what the company is working on.

What will be the next stage of Apple’s culture? Who knows ? But the company is headed for a future where it is much better equipped to innovate with trusted co-creative teams, even in challenging environments like a distributed workforce as a result of COVID-19. Apple can now continue to innovate with collective confidence, because “Different Together” now means Apple culture makes a difference together. Looking back, during that time at Apple (which we consider our “beta test” for cracking the code of cultural transformation), we believed that co-creation could be applied to any field. Today, we step away to ask the following questions: How can a company transform its culture (especially if so much is already working)? How do we get rid of cultural norms that prevent them from shaping the future at a higher level?

As Deaver tries to demonstrate, Apple can be both covert and collaborative, resulting in a success story like the AirPods Pro. However, it’s true that the leaks were quite numerous on the subject, we had published the design of the headphones before release. I’m not sure future mixed reality headsets or the Apple Car are housed in the same boat.

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