A recent NYT article by former Microsoft VP Dick Brass has caused quite the stir, but for the wrong reasons. Every follow up article I’ve read, including one from Microsoft, gets much of it wrong some key things wrong.
The premise: The core point of the Brass article is how the introduction of middle management and bureaucracy has killed innovation at Microsoft.
My counterargument: Microsoft has always been a conservative, platforms company. Visionary design and creative leaders think in terms of great products, which Microsoft has never been good at. Brass assumes the challenges that hampered Tablet PC were new and local, but they have always been there. Microsoft’s best, and most creative, work has come when a competitor forced one of the few Renaissance-VPs (VPs who were not over-promoted engineers but actually had a diversity of management skills) to take product design seriously.
My credentials: I worked at MSFT 1994 to 2003. I was on the IE 1.0 to IE 5.0 team among others (Windows, MSN, and MSTE/Best Practices, where I worked with many groups across the company). I wrote a bestselling book about Innovation and I’ve spoken and consulted with various groups at the company dozens of times since I left in 2003.
- The primary problem at Microsoft regarding good design & innovation is the diffusion of creative authority. The problem is not the numbers of people at the company, or the layers of management, as many gripe about. Layers don’t help, but it’s not the problem. The real issue is the inability to grant creative authority to the few people worthy of it. Microsoft has always been a place that gives way too many people a say in matters of design, vision and user experience, and it shows in the pervasive mediocrity of the majority of its products. Films need directors. Orchestras need conductors. But if you divide things into 30 pieces and ask 30 people to play creative visionary, mediocrity ensues. The better products at Microsoft are the ones where VPs modify the distribution of authority to create clear creative authority.
- Few VPs are qualified to be creative leaders, at Microsoft or elsewhere. And there is no creative lead role at Microsoft. There never has been. This is not new, it has always been true (at least since 1994 when I started). This is why when brilliant, genius type software designers come to the company, they are baffled by how little creative power they can earn, so they retreat to research or future thinking groups that have no skin in the game (e.g. Bill Buxton, Steve Capps, Ray Ozzie, Jim Gray (RIP), etc.). Microsoft is simply a hard place for to accumulate wide authority over design, which is required to make coherent visions, user experiences and innovations come true. Worse, it’s rare for leaders to acknowledge death by too many cooks since those who have never worked elsewhere, and have no conception of creative process, can’t imagine any other way. The culture has always been a heavily consensus/collaboration driven place for managers, which waters down ideas, and shifts what goes out the door heavily towards conservation.
- Management at Microsoft is fat with inbred managers who are not worthy of their title, but this has always been true. If you are hired to manage version 5 of something, you inherit a host of decisions made with skills you do not have, yet get credit for anyway. If the team you inherit does good work, and you happen to be the manager, you receive credit, regardless of how little you did. Entire unprofitable, failed divisions, funded by the rest of the company, promote people out of corporate obligation, creating the existence of middle managers who have never actually successfully managed anything in the marketplace. For the 90s, this was MSN and Consumer products, which were perennial failures. The quality pool of people who managed in those divisions was below average and as the company aged more of these groups were born. Microsoft, like all companies, has suffered from the Peter principle, or worse, perhaps the Paul Principle (people who are lousy at even simple management skills but inherit mediocre projects they don’t understand, and simply manage not to get fired via their team’s noble but unheralded efforts, which hide their shortcomings). As a result, there are line level managers at Microsoft who are more competent than some middle or senior managers. But this has always been true, given the diversity of the company. It’s worse now because of the size.
- Real layoffs would be a blessing. In 1999 when I left the Internet Explorer team (before the ill-fated IE 6.0 release), I looked around the company for other teams to work on. I couldn’t believe how many lost, misguided, sad, self-destructive teams I saw. This was in 1999! The company has more than tripled in size since then. Mini-Microsoft is so clearly on the mark about his core ambitions. I don’t wish unemployment on anyone, but I’d say a) the ratio of managers to programmers is insanely out of whack b) The number of projects and divisions that have never made profit and are market laggards is obscene. If the company were split apart, few groups are competent enough to survive a year. This defeats the “strategic value” these properties supposedly have, as dumping of buckets of money earned by Office and Windows profits into their bonfires of incompetence does not a strategy make. You need basic leadership competence, which all too many groups at Microsoft don’t have (and many never did).
- Microsoft’s best and most inventive work has often been driven by competition. A visible and serious threat is the only situation where leadership, historically, was forced to be creatively aggressive, giving a chance for creatives to obtain enough power to do good work. Windows 95, Office 95, Internet Explorer 5.0, MS Natural Keyboard, XBOX 360 were all excellent products by most standards, and were made possible by strong competition. The question executives need to ask is why divisions like Mobile & MSN,or the entire Vietnam like 15 year history of imploding efforts of web search (there is a great book to be written by someone about this), have been disasters despite clear and strong competition – this is the analysis to post on every office door at the rest of the company. If you want Office or Windows to change more, wait for more successful threats to these profit streams.
- It’s lazy arguing to assume an organization of 10,000 or 100,000 is uniform in any way. Groups at Microsoft have a different culture, and some have been wildly more successful than others (e.g. Office vs. MSN/Live/whatever it’s called this week) in part because their leaders have developed superior cultures that diverge widely from other groups. Windows 7 is an excellent product no matter how it stands in comparison to Apple’s work, and the turnaround from Windows Vista, which many heralded as the end of MSFT, was beyond noteworthy. If Windows 7 or XBOX 360 is made in the same company that makes all the products you hate, you have to realize the limits of painting broad strokes. This is where many critiques of Microsoft fall short, including the one by Brass. They assume uniformity, projecting a local set of experiences in part of the company as the model for the entire company.
- If you talk only to people who quit and were disgruntled you can’t possibly have the whole story. I’ve never met Dick Brass, but I know the Tablet PC was a commercial failure. As smart as Dick is, its likely he never understood how IE beat Netscape (it was more than the monopoly stuff), or Office beat Lotus/WordPerfect etc. He also might not know the long history of Windows and Office rejecting most requests from most other teams as a matter of both basic sanity and arrogance. Specific to Tablet PC, it started as a Bill Gates pet project. Working with Bill, who Dick curiously never mentions, was no treat, and unlike Steve Jobs, his direct involvement in matters of design is likely not a godsend. Articles like this one reads too much into corporate policies, as many of them are old (e.g. the review process) and good managers have always had ways to work within these rules to reward good employees. I’d agree the processes could be improved, but all the good VPs find ways to bend rules into loopholes.
- The greatest disease at Microsoft is lack of sharing lessons from failure, especially where innovation is concerned. Microsoft has made many big, visible bets. Many of them have failed, but that’s par for the course. The problem is these expensive lessons are swept under the rug, encouraging others in the company to repeat the same mistakes. Everyone loves to make fun of Microsoft Bob, but few can articulate why it failed. If you don’t understand why it failed, you don’t have any reason for laughing so hard, and you likely aren’t half as smart as you think you are. A case study on Vista, MSN Search, Microsoft Bob, The Tablet PC, etc. should be produced by an outside consultant, and stapled on the forehead of every manager at the company, once a day, until they read them all word for word. Then they’d take advantage of Microsoft’s so called experience and wisdom. Otherwise, they are being set up to make the same expensive mistakes again and again.
- The idea of Innovation, and Innovation Systems, is a distraction. Success in the market is a better scorecard and the most reliable source of criticism. Innovation, as the word is used in these articles, is a matter of taste. You can be very inventive and still get your ass kicked. Or do a great job with mostly conventional ideas, and kick more interesting competitors off the field. Apple, if you study their choices, doesn’t pull things out of the sky (digital music players, cell phones, and tablet PCs were all established ideas). They enter games others are already playing and kick their ass. But innovation is the least useful lens. The best criticism of Microsoft’s management is how, or how not, they’ve done against their competitors in terms of customer satisfaction. If innovation matters as much as people seem to claim it does, it’s well reflected in either market success or customer satisfaction, so worry more about those solid measures, rather than the ethereal notion of who is innovative and who isn’t.