It doesn’t seem to happen often, but even Apple stumbles from time-to-time. When the virtual doors opened for the much-anticipated launch of Apple’s new mobile operating systems, iOS 7, on Wednesday afternoon, the systems in Cupertino were completely unprepared for the volume of customer demand. iPhones and iPads around the world were locked in limbo, unable to operate, answer calls or send texts and tweets. Hours later, in many cases, a message appeared on the user’s screen:
That was the message that appeared on my iPad after about 3 hours in the ‘upgrade’ process. At that point I decided to wait a couple weeks until they get all the bugs worked out. Others were stuck in the install process, forcing some users to restore devices to factory settings. The circumstances were dire enough that Apple issued an internal high-priority alert to staffers, calling all hands on deck to minimize the fall out.
Have you ever had such a good idea that you couldn’t wait to get it out, and then in your enthusiasm, your delivery of the pitch lacked…something, and the response was a bit ho-hum? We all have. The delivery is as important as the concept. I like to say that what our customers are really buying most is our execution. In this case, in all their enthusiasm to provide the first major upgrade of their iOS since 2007, Apple did not execute.
In a few days or weeks, people may be saying ‘so what?’, or have forgotten the event altogether. Possibly, but what is the real impact of a poor launch? Reduced customer enthusiasm, definitely, and these situations stack up, with a compounding effect on our reputation – think of the numerous poor launches at Blackberry culminating with the Playbook. Employee morale suffers, and faith in the Tao of Apple slips a bit. Poor launches are expensive, leading to employee and contractor overtime. Fixes and patches may be required, resulting in future operating issues and more work. Legal costs may increase as a result of downtime or missed promises. Executives have lost their jobs in extreme cases as a result of a bad launch – the top 2 at Airbus were turfed when the A380 was two years late.
Key here is a realization in organizations that a strategic launch is not just on the shoulders of the project team – leadership in the firm plays a key role. My colleague, Kathryn Brohman, and I have worked with dozens of organizations in the last 5 years around what we call project leadership – an executive’s role in enabling project success. What would we have done here?
Walk first: A graduated roll out would have been appropriate with iOS 7. The customers are naturally segmented by the device they hold. Perhaps the iPhone 5 users get first access. Then iPhone 4 and 4S. Day 3 sees the iPad and iPod users logging in. This does several things for Apple and their customers – their servers are not overwhelmed with users logging in to upgrade; any bugs in the system will be realized and resolved at lower volumes, and therefore fixed with less overall impact. Hype and anticipation could actually increase. These staggered launches are common in many industries, including technology, making it odd that Apple didn’t apply the tactic here.
What can go wrong: Good leaders ask good questions. In this case – “What if everyone tries to download iOS 7 at the same time? What will happen?” Hmm. Maybe we should have some redundancy in place. Extra servers (hardware is cheap) may have eased the pain somewhat during the first two or three days. Additional technical support could have been on site (Apple resources and contractors) during the launch, rather than being summoned once the crisis emerged. Project teams don’t always think about risk, so building risk management into the organization’s project system, and as importantly, making sure it is discussed falls on leadership.
One Thing at a Time: Hey, guess what else we are launching right now? The next iPhone 5! That Apple chose to launch iPhone 5C and 5S just a couple days after iOS7 came out seems like they were asking for trouble. If the organization didn’t get their arms around the operating system launch, activations for those thousands lining up to buy a 5C would have been delayed or problematic in other ways. Give the organization some breathing room between key launches. Things go wrong for every company on a launch – you are doing something new, so uncertainty and risk are inevitable. Don’t make it worse by stacking launches on top of each other.
Despite all this, record crowds were lining up on Friday, two days after the iOS7 issues, to purchase iPhone 5S and 5C. At the flagship store on 5th avenue in New York, the count was over 1,000 customers at 7am. Perhaps the delays in download were intentional too, a virtual queue so users would appreciate the new operating system even more. If that is the case, the folks in Waterloo and Seoul must really be shaking their heads.
Barry Cross is a professor of operations management and technology at Queen's School of Business. He has worked with dozens of organizations in the areas of lean, innovation, projects and execution, and is the best-selling author of Lean Innovation: Understanding What’s Next in Today’s Economy.