This is a story of something leadership wanted, but management killed it anyway.
In 1993, Apple was in trouble financially. It was an $8-billion company, but it wasn’t making money.
At its worst, management beats the creativity and enthusiasm out of people. That’s what happened to a project inside Apple to create a new computer. It was so plagued with office politics and egos that in August that year, the company pulled the plug and let the whole team go. Leadership wanted a new computer, but management failure caused the project to die.
But it wasn’t only hardware engineers that got the pink slip. Computers need software. One programmer, a certain Ron Avitzur, was writing an app for the now defunct computer to visualize mathematics equations. It was called a graphing calculator.
It’s hard to visualize a graph of the fourth root of 1-z squared minus sin to the power of |theta| times |theta| without a graphing calculator. Ron Avitzur’s version shows that the function yields a pretty graph in the shape of nested hearts.
Avitzur was driven by the desire to see the graphing calculator in the hands of schoolkids. Schools don’t have money to invest in maths visualization software, and Avitzur knew that his app would really help kids understand the concepts.
At the same time, he knew that the beautiful visuals were a great way to show off the power of the new chip.
The plan was to finish the software and somehow get it shipped with the new PowerPC-based computers when they launched.
But Avitzur’s team had no access cards to the Apple building, and they had no offices. They didn’t work for Apple. They had no bosses, but that meant no budget, no access to the prototype hardware for their software, no QA, no usability studies—all the stuff that only management can provide.
Avitzur said without management, egos and politics, they could just focus on getting things done and making a great product. But without management buy-in, they were at a big disadvantage.
What’s interesting about this dilemma is that Avitzur and leadership both wanted the software to succeed, albeit for different reasons: Avitzur wanted to make software to help schoolkids visualise mathematics equations.
Senior leadership wanted an app that would be useful to schoolkids (the education market was a key thrust for Apple at the time), and also would show off the power of the new hardware. In other words, Avitzur and leadership wanted the same thing.
But the middle layer, management, didn’t want any of that.
This should never happen. There should never be a clash of vision between leaders and managers. There should never be a clash between team members and managers. Everybody should be pulling in the same direction. But as you and I know, the clash between Avitzur and management is all too common.
And this exact clash of management and team members is coming soon to your own team, if Accenture’s Tech Vision 2021 is to be believed.
How does a tech vision predict a clash of team members and management? By identifying one of the Tech Vision 2021 trends, which it calls I, technologist.
The trend points to something called the “low code/no code movement.” It’s basically the art of creating software without being a developer. If you have ever created a rule to filter your emails into folders, or you’ve written a spreadsheet that has two equations that feed off each other, then you have enough skill to create an actual app using one of these low code/no code environments.
In the same way as WordPress and Squarespace and Wix and other website builders make it easy for anybody to create a decent-looking website that ten years ago would have taken a team of developers a month to make, these low code/no code environments make app developers of us all.
A silly example is a service called Zapier. Using it, you can, say, set up an alert to monitor your Gmail account for PDF attachments, automatically download those attachments to your Dropbox and get an alert via Slack. In the past you would need extensive programming experience and knowledge of the APIs of all those different services. But now, all you need is a repetitive business problem, a mouse and the ability to click things into place.
It’s so effective that construction workers in one Dutch company created a mobile app to log a workplace incident in a database and automatically send an SMS to the supervisor. To be clear about this: there’s an actual app in the actual app stores written by construction workers using a no code/low code environment.
Those construction workers are kind of Avitzur lite, creating apps by themselves that senior leaders really love, but with no instruction or oversight from management.
I wonder what the implications would be if you and I started behaving like app developers.
If you’re senior leadership, you love it. Finally, your people are getting behind the vision and taking ownership. They’re making things happen!
But if you’re a manager, this is your worst nightmare come true. If people are busy creating apps, when will they do their actual work? And if you’re in IT, or Governance, or Compliance, or Legal or HR, your immediate concern is how all of this can go wrong. Who will these apps belong to? What would happen if the construction workers’ app failed to alert the supervisor properly and somebody was hurt? Who would be liable?
I don’t know about you, but security in my company is so tight that my email system warns me every time I receive an email from outside the organization. If I can’t be trusted to receive emails from my customers, how will the Risk department handle me creating apps to automate worker safety alerts?
At the start of this blog, I said this story was about something leadership wanted but management killed.
Ron Avitzur’s little graphing calculator had some real fans inside Apple. Engineers snuck prototype computers with the new PowerPC chip under the door of Avitzur and his partner Greg Robbins’s borrowed offices. Software engineers volunteered their time to optimize the code for the PowerPC chip. People from QA volunteered to test the app—all in strict secrecy, and for no money.
Finally, Avitzur came clean to the leadership team. They immediately saw its potential to show off the new hardware. Salespeople used the app to demonstrate the power of the latest generation of Macs. Avitzur’s little app was shipped on 20-million computers initially, and to this day the latest version (now called Grapher) is shipped with every Apple computer.
The only way Aviztur and Robbins could achieve this was by bypassing management. But bypassing management is not a recipe for success. At its best, management empowers team members, and removes obstacles to success. Bypassing management is not sustainable. But maybe there’s a way around it. I think the pandemic has given us a welcome opportunity for a reset.
Maybe we are finally ready for some innovation of management itself.
And if we can innovate the relationship between management, leadership and our teams, maybe we can really make the difference our leadership wants us to.