Retroactively planning

Upon reaching a goal you cannot look back on the journey in search of the process that led you to success; you will invariably romanticize the past, shedding mediocre choices in a complimentary light, discounting difficult challenges, and misremembering strokes of genius in situations where there was none. In short, this exercise will ultimately only ensure that you never replicate any form of that success again. Rather than flying by the seat of your pants and relying on a postmortem to delineate good steps from bad, a much better approach would advocate starting with a solid and detailed plan, a well thought-out course of action, for you cannot go from the other way around and reasonably hope to make even mediocre achievements.

I think this a relatively straightforward and sensible insight, so let us put it into perspective with regards to Apple, Google, and Samsung, keeping in mind all the while that rather than a comparison in which we find one winner and two losers, this is merely an examination of their different approaches and the value of each.

Apple started out of a garage in California with the goal of making computing more accessible. Famously, everyone at that time could build their own computer, but not everyone wanted to. This philosophy underwent a distillation process over the years, becoming the more salient mantra of “build great products” Tim Cook extols on a regular basis, and did so once again in the most recent earnings call. This informs their every decision, and guides them in the process of creating incredible products. To say that it has served Apple well over the years by allowing the company to become one of the most valued corporations in the world, then, would be a slight understatement, to say the least.

Google set out with a similarly noble goal, although it has become somewhat convoluted as of late. What began as the simple mission statement “index the world” later grew with the amendment of “through targeted advertising” when co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin realized that search alone did not make for a sustainable business. At some point early on in Google’s history that mantra, although not to my knowledge ever explicitly stated, became internalized and replaced with the public-facing and highly-ambiguous “Don’t be evil” we have to this day. Internally, however, the driving force behind Google’s actions has continued to change: the latter motivation usurped the former as Google’s most important goal, and as such up until recently everything Google has done has been in service of providing better ads. That’s not to say that their focus has completely shifted from indexing the world, but that when simplified and taken as a two-tier priority system unparalleled search became second to building out the necessary capabilities to serve targeted advertising. Their former number one priority remains, for ads without a compelling platform are completely worthless, but Google now1 actively works to improve advertising first and search second. Regardless of Google’s motivations though, Larry and Sergey’s original approach has served their company well: what began as a Stanford research project has grown into one of the largest internet companies in existence.

Samsung, in contrast to both Apple and Google, started from the other end: they had a phone design numerous court proceedings have proven came directly from or at least was heavily influenced by Apple’s iPhone, and an operating system from Google; combining the two, they began raking in cash captured from the low-end and mid-range smartphone markets. Outside of supply chain, manufacturing, and user interface skinning — everything but the actual product — Samsung has managed almost no innovation to get where they currently reside at the head of the Android market, choosing instead to capitalize on the efforts of others. This worked for them, up to a point: mid-range and down Android phones are approaching saturation though, and these users have no where to go but up from here. Although some will continue buying Android-based Samsung-made smartphones, the company cannot count on user loyalty to continue driving growth. If anything, under its current strategy, Samsung will only continue losing users as its existing install base flees upmarket, using Samsung’s less expensive devices as gateway drugs to the high-end smartphone world. In order to bring future growth back on track, Samsung must look to other market sectors in which to replicate the explosive success of their mobile handset business. Unfortunately, they have nothing to replicate but results: with no process — they built (and I use the term loosely here) off of others’ work to achieve their first wave of success — they have no recourse but to make an attempt at inferring a viable process from existing results. And as we established earlier, that’s an exercise ultimately doomed to failure.

I trust you see what I did there.