The announcement of the Vista delays has sparked a new round of debates about what’s going on at Microsoft. The mailbox has been full of questions for me on the subject – so here’s some insights from a former employee (’94-2003) and manager in the Windows division.
- Centralized authority and MSFT culture. The most comical misperception about Microsoft is the management style – everyone think’s it’s a rigid hierarchy, when it’s mostly a consensus driven place. Everyone gets an opinion and senior managers are often more skilled at consensus management than leading teams. If there’s any one thing I’d point to for large failing projects is lack of successful central authority – With a project in trouble I’d move to centralize power in a smaller number of people and free them to run with the ball. The rub is that the culture doesn’t support this well – people still want a consensus mentality (something born of small team and start-up culture), they want to own their slice, even when it’s contributing to driving projects into the ground (or at least mediocrity). It’s in the fiber of the company and it’s hard to change.
- Talk is cheap. Every time I read rants about gutting Windows, firing all the VPs or making Windows open source I have one comment: I don’t believe you’d do it if it were your job to manage Windows. As easy as it is to yell orders from off the boat, I doubt most people, if given the helm, would put an $8 billion machine at risk. Certainly not now, as it would mean another 2 years of development. Besides, no one wants to be the one that tanked one of the greatest franchises in technological history (regardless of how that franchise was built). Even if big, bold moves are in order – I doubt most of us would have the guts to take those risks if we were personally accountable for the results. It’s a classic innovator’s dilemma situation. A better gripe is how the franchise hasn’t been managed on a steady progressive course, given how many possibilites there are for making things better without taking radical moves.
- It’s never just one thing. It’s fun and convenient to chalk up project problems to one issue. “The VPs are idiots – fire them all!” or “they were too ambitous” but there’s rarely one reason (Nothing drives faith in the easy answer more than frustration). Most of the time there are several factors that conspire together, especially if it’s a large project with large goals. There are often successful sub-teams working inside most large, problematic projects (And some are speaking out over at mini-microsoft). As a consultant, understanding (and fixing) projects involves finding the factors and accouting for them without tanking the parts that work well. There’s rarely a single move that saves the day and any problem that took months to develop is not going to be solved in a hour.
- A slip is infinitely better than a panned product. With a slip, even 6 months, people will cry and scream but the world will not end. However, with a bad release, like Windows 98ME, Bob or Netscape 5, the world just might fall on you. So while a series of slips shouldn’t inspire confidence, it does mean there is a sane person somwhere in the organization with their hands at the controls. The Vista news has been mostly negative, and no competitor has tried to capitalize on it, meaning a slip has little competitive risk.
- However, the door is open for competitors . The bad Vista PR over the last year has made a window – Linux, Firefox and Red Hat should be doing something: a viral ad, a marketing campaign, anything. But they’ve been awfully quiet and I don’t understand why. I think this is the more interesting story than what’s going on in Redmond. The MSFT Windows multi-slip ship cycle is an old (perhaps sad) story, but the silence on the battlefront deserves more attention.
- Microsoft’s PR and public management of the Vista project has been reactive and weak. I’ve never thought PR and marketing were well directed by executives (well funded, yes, but well managed or empowered, no). Many announcements and launches were messaged in the blandest, most generic ways possible (Win95 and X-box the most notable exceptions). Microsoft is inherently a conservative company (in strategy not tactics) and its always shown in its advertisements and approach to PR. For all the stereotyping of Microsoft as a great marketing company, I never saw it: Nike, Intel and Apple are all dramatically better and amplify the value of their product lines. Vista’s failures to date are more dramatic from a PR and messaging perspective than anything else. They’ve failed to articluate a value proposition (even if invented), and to bring a positive meme around the release to match or compensate for the litany of negative announcements and setbacks. The greatest failure of the project to date isn’t technological or managerial – it’s PR and messaging. A private train wreck is one thing, a public one is another.
- Sinofsky is an inspired move. The MSFT culture, historically, is heavily polarized between Windows and Office. In my day Windows were the smart-ass cowboys who liked risks and breaking rules – not surprisingly Windows had a history of confused early projects that came together only on the home stretch. Office (again, in my day) were stereotypically smart, reliable, consistent A students, who won through plans more than passion. Sinofsky (formerly the Senior VP of Office, now VP of Windows) is the first major attempt I know of to bridge those philosophical and management differences: there’s something to be learned in both directions.