Apple Pie Position

Apple Pie Position: A statement that instantly elevates the person who is saying it and is simultaneously hard for anyone else to push back on, and so everyone avoids the personal risk and just nods “yes”, even though its actual value in this specific situation might be relatively low, zero, or even negative.

Because everyone in the workplace wants to come across as smart & competent, especially during meetings, Apple Pie Positions end up being frequently employed by your colleagues.

Examples of Apple Pie Positions (trigger warning: might feel too painful at times)

  1. “We need to define the success metrics for <whatever is being discussed>”

Also seen in the wild as: “How will you measure success here?”

  1. “Do you have any data to back that up?”

(narrator: it is either impossible to get useful data in this situation or the effort to get useful data would be greater than just doing it)

  1. “We need more scalable team processes”

  2. “We have too many meetings”

  3. “We need to sync more often”

  4. “This is a two-way door, so let’s just decide quickly”

(narrator: it was actually a one-way door. or, it was a two-way door with a hungry lion on the other side of the door, so we kinda died)

  1. “We need more metrics before making a decision here”

  2. “We need a better go-to-market motion to improve product adoption”

(narrator: the problem is you’ve built the wrong product, no amount of GTM sorcery is going to fix that)

  1. “We need to clarify our expectations from people in this role so we can set them up for success”

(narrator: the problem is that you’ve hired too many people whose work overlaps with other functions)

  1. “We need better internal documentation!”

(narrator: yes we do. we also need 50 other things so let’s just finally admit that this ain’t happening. besides OpenAI will solve this for us in 2024, right?)

  1. “Let us not forget [quote one of the company’s core values].”

(narrator: sometimes used as a weapon to justify one’s position, especially when faced with objective & rational counter-arguments for an issue)

  1. “We need to replace our team meeting with written updates”

Fast forward a few weeks/months:

“People are missing live interactions with team members, they don’t know what’s going on across the team, nobody’s reading the written updates. We need a meeting”

  1. “Our current org structure doesn’t set us up for optimal execution of our strategic goals. That’s why we are announcing a re-org”

  2. “We must not slow down our shipping velocity”

(narrator: usually applied to push back against a fairly rational measure that will cause a minor delay in shipping the product but will prevent bigger problems for the customers or the company further down the road)

  1. “We need to post-mortem this”

(narrator: you should have pre-mortem’ed this, so you wouldn’t have had to deal with an ugly post-mortem. and the systemic changes rarely happen and somehow we are doing another ugly post-mortem 3 months from now. repeat)

  1. “After 13 amazing months as CxO, Bob has decided to leave for other personal pursuits. The company wouldn’t be the same without his contributions”

(narrator: this is not how it actually went down)

  1. “We need an offsite so we can align the teams better with our strategic priorities”

(narrator: we said the same thing for the previous 6 offsites. it almost seems like we are doing offsites more than we are being onsites)

  1. “Remember, we are a mission-driven company”

(narrator: particularly effective when justifying below-market salary / stock for current and prospective employees)

  1. “We need to go on a customer listening tour to understand our customers better”

(narrator: no, you need to pay more attention to the customer research that’s already happened over the past 18 months that we haven’t done anything about. you then need to translate that into differentiated features, instead of just building me-too tablestakes)

Okay, so now that you understand Apple Pie, here’s your crash course on dealing with Apple Pie:

  1. The greatest thing about Apple Pie Positions is that you now have a name to assign to a complex behavior (and it is a cute name, which helps a lot). Once you share this idea with your team, add the name to your team’s shared vocabulary.

  2. This is vital because once you add it to the shared vocabulary, it removes almost all awkwardness for someone to be able to say “hmmm… this sounds like an Apple Pie Position to me. I understand that this is often a valid question, but instead of just answering the question you asked, let’s first talk about how important this question is in this specific situation”.

  3. Any time you can socialize a tactic that drastically reduces the degree of courage your team members have to muster to call out BS or a lack of rigor, it will be a huge win for your team’s happiness and for the culture you want to create

  4. A shared vocabulary is a fabulous tool for that. Because it is shared & understood by your team, it doesn’t carry stigma and the “you’re not a team player” risk. In fact, because you all share this term, you come across as even more of a team player (if you do it respectfully and at the right times, of course)

  5. Now, if you are one of the leaders of the team, you will need to live the values you evangelize. You will need to tell the team, “I really find this idea valuable. And so I want you to please start by calling out whenever I say something that seems like an Apple Pie Position”. And when someone actually does it, thank them with your words and your body language. If you are not sincere, people will see through your BS, and it won’t work

  6. “But Shreyas, what if I am not the big boss, but I see Apple Pie everywhere?” Yeah, that is tougher. You don’t want to get fired calling out Apple Pie Positions for every third sentence your CEO utters. Especially in this economy. But no matter where you are in the org, you can try it out these techniques with your circle of trust. Maybe it’s just with the 2-3 people you work closest with. No matter what, you can start somewhere

  7. Now, how to do all this in a way it sticks? Use humor, carbs, and sugar. If you really want to socialize the idea, in a way that people around you are more likely to heed it, throw an Apple Pie party. Like literally, send a calendar entry during your team’s Fun Time, call it “Apple Pie Party” and order Apple Pie (if not everyone is in office, ask them to also order Apple Pie, reimbursed, of course). Then, go through my original tweet above, as a team. Talk about what resonates, what doesn’t. Create a contest for who can come up with the best Apple Pie Position that I didn’t mention. (make the team vote for their favorite). And then wait to see the magic of how it sticks.

  8. Heck, Pi day is coming (March 14). This is your chance, your moment. Just do it.

Whatever you do, as long as this Apple Pie concept resonates with you, do not tell me “but Shreyas, there is nothing I can do”. Because there is. Creativity and High Agency are your best friends here. So get their help.

One other important thing:

Note that Apple Pie Positions are, by definition, specific to the context. This means that the same sentence can be either the right thing to focus on, or it can be an Apple Pie Position. The way you determine which is which is through good judgment. Just because someone says “What are the success criteria here?” or “What data do we have to back that up?” does not automatically make it an Apple Pie Position. But also remember that it isn’t always a good question and it might even majorly detract from our goals at times.

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References

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Doshi, S. Apple Pie Position: A statement that instantly elevates the person who is saying it and is simultaneously hard for anyone else to push back on, and so everyone avoids the personal risk and just nods ``yes’’, even though its actual value in this specific situation might be. Twitter Tweet at https://twitter.com/shreyas/status/1628567045800591361 (2023).