Lavish Leadership

“Maybe Microsoft suffers from too much leadership.”

That surprising statement came from an industry analyst with one of the major groups. We were recently splitting lunch and enjoying some obscenely great Silicon Valley weather, discussing the tech industry as a whole and wondering if Microsoft might soon be known only as “The Xbox Company.” We mutually marveled at how seemingly inept Microsoft has become, with one market disaster after another. Since we both had experience with start-ups and big vendors alike, the discussion focused keenly on leadership and ossification.

You never want to be the leader for the former.

Microsoft has two primary problems when it comes to innovation, the first of which is that they remain consumed by former glories and the old ways of thinking. This same analyst told me that – at least until recently – Microsoft sized their markets based on the number of PCs in an organization, not the number of information workers. Like the IBM of old where all activities revolved around the mainframe, Microsoft revolves too much of its thinking around desktops. Given mobility and Microsoft’s late/flawed strategy for making mobile work, it may be that their PC inertia is throttling their other ambitions.

steve-ballmer-peopleThis is sadly amusing given that mobile is a very personal computing experience and Microsoft started as a personal computer company. To flounder so badly at this fundamentally personal computing pivot point would be perplexing were it not for historical comparisons. The most vivid is IBM, who despite bringing Microsoft to fame via the original PC, was myopically focused on their mainframes. Indeed, much of IBM’s PC business was constrained by making the little machines part of the mainframe ecosystem, not letting it evolve and profiting from that evolution. One could argue (and I will) that Windows 8 was an attempt to bridge mobile to maintain desktop superiority, and failed both markets.

This may be why my analyst friend thinks Microsoft suffers from too much leadership, for they led the Microsoft troops into creating a digital Frankenstein monster that was universally repulsive.

The intersection of markets, trends, leadership and management is conceptually simple. An organization is either ahead or behind a trend (really great companies create trends out of stuff thinner than air). This is where leadership is essential, because leading requires creating and communicating a vision of something that doesn’t exist. Even Microsoft demonstrates this from time to time as they did with their Xbox project, which was so tangent to desktop computing that Microsoft had no choice but to let the Xbox team take their own path.

Management is the essential antithesis of leadership. It is a more mechanical process, one driven by numbers and bureaucracy. Leadership into new markets requires decentralization and flexibility, whereas maintaining a product line leans on management. The tangent problem herein is that management can be infected by inertia, such as Microsoft counting PCs and not people as their market. For Microsoft to have a chance requires delivering different products to different groups, and this requires different groups within Microsoft lead by different visionaries, bridging teams only when necessary. It is a really good to have a single underlying software architecture, but leave the user experience and marketing thereof to decentralized team leaders. After delivering a core OS, separate servers, desktops, mobile and games entirely. Leave the applications group to decide on which platforms they can make a buck.

Microsoft may not have too much leadership, but what they have is too highly concentrated in a single place.


Speak up! What are your thoughts?

Your email address will not be published.