With the AirPods Pro, Apple would have tested a more collaborative working method

The development of the first AirPods was not done without strong tensions among its teams says Chris Deaver in fast companya human resources specialist passed by Apple after Disney and now at VMware. Difficulties born in large part from this extreme culture of secrecy which can prevail at Apple, deprived of communication from the teams who are nevertheless working on the same product.

Image: Apple

An experience that led him at the time, with other of his colleagues, to encourage the creation of “Brain Trust”. Reflection and discussion groups that bring together people from different groups, sharing the same objective. By exchanging, discussing, reviewing the difficulties encountered, they could work faster and better to resolve them.

Chris Deaver, who worked at Apple between 2015 and 2019, explains that the development of AirPods was done in silos, a habit within Apple. With teams, specialized in their respective fields, who only communicated at the very last moment, as the finalization stage approached.

It ended with daily 5 or 6 hour meetings, causing enormous friction and burnout. People were frustrated. They had to leave or “never work with that person again”.

This culture of secrecy which was becoming harder to manage, with more and more products in development, people involved, technologies, specializations, had a paralyzing effect for certain initiatives. Newly arrived employees feared disclosing information to the wrong people and did not know how to navigate and navigate this policy of information opacity.

Photo credit: Wallpaper, December 2021

The case of the AirPods had served as an indicator of an inadequacy of this privacy policy internally with the enormous group that had become Apple and its dispersed teams.

A way had to be found to launch communication bridges between these tight zones. Chris Deaver said he took inspiration from Pixar’s organizational model promoted by its co-founder Ed Catmull. The animation studio encourages meetings between people from different teams to discuss problems and try to solve them together. We come to a meeting with our ideas, our proposals and the egos are left behind the door.

It turned out that this mode of cross-group collaboration and sharing already existed at Apple within the Camera team. And it seemed to be the only one of its kind, as if it had set itself up.

However, each senior manager of the major groups within Apple – design, retail, etc. — continues to advocate the benefits of information sharing and collaboration. Clearly, there was a desire for openness which was not, however, reflected in the organizational methods. The challenge was to set up these reflection and discussion groups, within the limits imposed by the need to keep these exchanges secret. Nor did everyone at Apple need to know what products were in the works.

We discovered the “Camera Braintrust” […] and we applied its key ingredients: a weekly transparency session among employees, driven by an honest and open approach to sharing the issues they were facing. Each manager and each team having a voice in the debate, each sharing exactly the progress of their development and what they need from the other teams. This led to cycles of innovation that had accelerated the technology of the camera part of the products to new heights, making it a perfect example of collaboration.

This method was reproduced and applied with some success, explains Chris Deaver, for the creation of AirPods Pro, with the desire not to repeat previous mistakes.

The result was a group that met regularly, an openness and communication that gave birth to these great AirPods Pro headphones. It was a testament to innovation, but also to the power of sharing. Yes, this sharing could now be done within a framework of confidentiality.

This new approach, baptized “Different Together” by Deaver and his colleagues, in a nod to the “Think Different” slogan, was proposed to the R&D division, to the retail division, to the MacBook, iPhone, Apple Watch and Beats teams. and more generally with the intention of making it a new operating culture in the company.

Open doors in the new design studio of

Open house at the new design studio in Apple Park


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