Sunday, July 14, 2013

Culture Change at One Microsoft

Microsoft announced a major re-organization this week intended to end the internal turf wars that have caused divisions to sabotage each other and undermine key company-wide strategies. Many internet commenters immediately lauded the move. There was a lot of consensus that now that Ballmer had laid down the law, divisions would begin cooperating and Microsoft's potential would be unleashed.

But turf wars are ingrained in the culture at Microsoft, and that culture won't be changed easily, certainly not by a top-down re-org. The turf wars aren't caused by a few bad apples or limited to top executives or managers. Engineers engage in turf wars as well. The entire review system at Microsoft is based on grading team members on a curve. If you've spent any time at Microsoft, you've gotten used to seeing peers as competitors who are trying to get ahead of you in a zero-sum game. I imagine that there are many employees who would love to see this culture change, but you aren't going to lay down your knife at a knife fight unless you are fairly confident that everyone else is going to lay down their knives, too.

I can guarantee you that the turf wars will not stop right away. The question is: How will Ballmer respond when the turf wars continue? If Ballmer makes a public example out of the first major turf war that breaks out after the re-organization takes hold (meaning heads roll), then the culture may slowly start to shift. However, if he does nothing, then he will signal to his employees that it is business as usual. Believe me, everyone will be watching to see what he does.

Unfortunately, Ballmer's track record in laying down the law at Microsoft is not very good. Tablet PCs were first introduced by Microsoft in 2000. According to Bill Gates, tablet PCs were the future of computing and the company was totally behind them. But year after year, the Office team undermined this strategy by refusing to release a tablet-optimized version of Microsoft Office. They flat out refused to do anything to help tablet PCs take off... and heads never rolled. I could see Ballmer taking a hands-off approach for the first couple of years; after all, he put the best people in charge and trusted them to execute. But after it became clear that tablet PCs were falling victim to an internal turf war, why didn't Ballmer step in and put an end to the fighting?

Okay, maybe all of the tablet PC talk at Microsoft was just marketing speak and there was no true belief in the form factor. But then the iPad hit, tablets really took off, and Microsoft countered by releasing Surface RT and Surface Pro. To support the release of the Surface, the Office team did release a version of Microsoft Office where you could turn on a touch-friendly UI. Now this touch-friendly UI was clearly meant to be a stopgap while a truly Metro-fied version of Office was being developed, so I didn't expect a lot of engineering resources to be thrown at it. But what was released was a joke. All they did was tweak the ribbon so that buttons were a little bigger and farther apart. It really looks like an intern was assigned to the job for six months. Again, no heads rolled.

Maybe the ouster of Steven Sinofsky and this re-organization represent a real shift in Ballmer's thinking and leadership. Time will tell. But changing a culture is hard work, and that hard work is just beginning at Microsoft. I wish them luck.

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