February 2016
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Day February 16, 2016

Priorities in a time of plenty

How Apple is managed is one of its enduring mysteries. The idea that a company with $235 billion in sales is managed with a single P/L[1]  is fascinating in many ways. Not least of which is how it allocates resources. The fundamental question of which great idea gets to be funded and which great idea gets to be ignored is the core of every manager’s dilemma. The Apple problem is at scale  when each decision’s consequences are so momentous. In the case of Apple there are so few projects that reach the market and their impact is so great that one wonders how they can be sure they are doing the right thing.

Conventionally, product development is filtered through a sieve of  metrics, market sizing and impact on top/bottom income lines. These “financial” measures of success are considered prudent and optimized for return on equity (also known as the maximization of shareholder returns).

But this can be a toxic formula. The financial optimization algorithm always prioritizes the known over the unknown since the known can be measured and is assigned a quantum of value while the unknown is “discounted” with a steep hurdle rate, and assigned a near zero net present value. Thus the financial algorithm leads to promoting efficiency at the expense of creation. Efficiency may be the right priority when times are difficult and resources are scarce but creativity is the right priority in a time of plenty. And abundance is what being big is all about.

To allow for some creation large firms create divisions. Some divisions are tasked with “core products” which are measured by a set of firm metrics and some are tasked with “emerging products” which are given a set of loose metrics. This leads to obvious resentment and war between divisions when resources need allocating.

Ominously, the core divisions tend to always win. At the root of divisional power struggles are measurements–the roots of financial metrics. Managers fight with data. “You can’t manage what you can’t measure” they’re taught. But if you have something that can be easily measured and something that is difficult to measure, won’t the easily-measured be managed and the hard-to-measure be ignored?

There is a general principle at work here: Managing by measurement is fraught with the pitfall of measuring the wrong thing. Making sure that you’re measuring the right thing becomes the value-adding role of the manager. A role that is increasingly being neglected.

The mass phenomenon of measuring the wrong thing because it’s the easiest to measure is called “financialization”. Financialization is the process by which finance and finances (rather than creation) determine company, individual and society’s priorities. It comes about from an abundance of data that leads to fixation on what is observable to the detriment of awareness of hazards or obstacles or alternatives. This phenomenon is more likely when the speed of change increases and decision cycles shorten.

Financialization is creeping into all aspects of society and the extent to which it infects companies is the extent to which they suffer from early mortality.

So is Apple avoiding financialization? How can anyone avoid the tyranny of mis-optimization?

The unified P/L might be a clue. It obviates the need for divisional rivalry and power-based or financial politics. Without divisional P/L, management can be organized functionally with the obvious benefit of de-politicization. The singular P/L does create another problem however: the absence of an alternative resource allocation algorithm centralizes the decision. By centralizing decisions at the highest level, few decisions can be taken and that means each decision has to be right more often. We swap a distributed but financialized process for a central but capricious one.

So how is the central decision process made fair? What guides the allocation process?

  1. Profit and Loss statement is an income statement usually applied for a subset of a larger company which allows subdivisions to be managed individually. []