Risk Aversion

Was having an interesting conversation this morning with Om and Hunter about the recent firing of Richard Williamson from Apple over the Maps debacle. Hunter posed a question that, in hindsight, seems like such an obvious one to ask:

How does that make rest of co feel? Enforces ‘only ship quality’ or makes people risk averse?

After thinking about that for a little while, there seem to be two forms of risk aversion Hunter’s identifying:

An aversion to proposing new initiatives and making big bets on unproven technology.

This is the worst kind of risk aversion and you see it all the time in big companies. Microsoft, in particular, seems to be struggling with this aversion. Even in Windows 8, which placed a big bet on the Metro-style, they mitigated risk by shipping Windows Classic as part of the operating system. Even in the face of it being a terrible user experience on a touch screen, there’s an obvious fear that not including old Windows would a) cause people not to buy Windows 8 and b) threaten the career of whoever made the call to ditch it.

Aversion to big bets means you stop innovating (and fall behind), or that you ship half-measure products that are afraid to commit to a direction.

Aversion to shipping sub-par products.

On the face of it, being averse to putting half-baked products (like Apple Maps) out into the wild isn’t the worst problem to have. It means that you only release things when they’re truly solid and ready for primetime. Apple is historically known for this sort of attitude, though it can easily be argued that they ignored those instincts with MobileMe, Siri and Apple Maps.

The problem with this aversion is that, unless you have a strong hand at the wheel, it’s easy to slip ship dates or, in bad cases, never ship. The beautiful thing about shipping as early as possible is that having a product out in the world forces you to focus on improving it quickly. There’s nothing that lights a fire quite like knowing that real people are struggling with your product.

It seems fairly obvious that Apple letting Williamson go only serves to reinforce the second point. And to be honest, Apple’s track record of releasing not-quite-ready apps and services isn’t awesome, so maybe they need that realignment internally. Regardless, it will be interesting to see what these recent changes mean for overall software and service quality going forward.


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