Former HR Exec Explains How Apple Transitioned from Secrecy to Transparency While Developing the AirPods Pro

BY Anu Joy

Published 6 May 2022


A former Apple HR executive has revealed how the AirPods Pro was developed as a result of increased transparency while sharing information among employees. This marked a departure from the cloak of secrecy that usually surrounds Apple products.

Chris Deaver is a former Apple HR executive who worked at the firm from 2015 to 2019. In a guest post for Fast Company, Deaver says that the company’s decision to veer away from secrecy made the development of the AirPods Pro possible. This was in contrast to how its predecessor was created under a shroud of mystery enveloping the employees themselves.

The executive writes about how the exponential growth of Apple’s workforce meant that it couldn’t afford to maintain secrecy within teams.

“The company’s growing workforce and scale of new people in different places increased the demands for innovation to accelerate connection, convergence, and collaboration. Secrecy was getting in the way.”

He explains how the various teams worked separately at the beginning, and only came together before the product was to be launched. As expected, this resulted in confusion and burnout, as issues popped up at the last moment and members from different teams were at loggerheads with each other.  

“And what we’d seen with the development of AirPods was an example of exactly what would happen when we hadn’t solved for it. Teams were innovating for months in silos only to finally converge in the eleventh hour before launch, ending up in five- or six-hour-long daily meetings, causing tremendous friction and burnout. People were frustrated. They wanted to leave or to ‘never work with that one person again.'”

Apple Draws Inspiration From Stephen Covey and Pixar

Deaver wanted to avoid just that, and was on the lookout for a solution to take the AirPods Pro to “the next level”. He drew some inspiration from Stephen Covey’s classic self-help book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” The ex-Apple HR was drawn to the conclusion of the book, which emphasized the importance of interdependence, with a focus on selflessness.

“Most work cultures are loaded with bureaucracy and politics that squash creativity at first sight. The answer: Blending timeless principles and creativity—to inspire co-creation.

At the core, we wondered: What could principles tied to co-creation do to help bridge these silos found in companies like Apple?”

The former Apple executive continued to search for more ideas to help connect the “silos” that had been created at the firm due to the secrecy between teams. He then turned to Ed Catmull, the founder of Pixar who had established a “braintrust,” described as a team which adheres to the motto of “egos off the table, building blocks on the table.”

Serendipitously, Deaver discovered that such a braintrust already existed within the iOS camera team called “The Camera Braintrust.” His team attempted to follow the same approach for the development of the AirPods Pro. He notes:

“What happened next was amazing: As teams converged with leaders becoming more open, connected, and driving higher quality collaboration than ever before. We spent time coaching, collaborating, and influencing key leaders and engineers driving the next frontier of AirPods. What emerged was a braintrust with regular sessions, openness, and connection that brought to life the insanely great, noise-canceling AirPods Pro. It was a testament to innovation, but also to the power of sharing. Yes, sharing could be done in the context of secrecy.”

This strategy was wildly successful and inspired a culture shift christened “Different Together.” The new motto borrows from Apple’s “Think Different” campaign. Ironically, Deaver remains secretive about how Apple balanced secrecy with collaboration. The ex-Apple HR concludes the post by reiterating the importance of co-creation, “The future belongs to the brave ones who can unleash the power of co-creation in their culture.”

[Via Fast Company]