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Those Days are Gone Forever, You Should Just Let Them Go

With Ballmer’s big (and I mean, seriously grande-sized) restructure mail, we all have an idea of what the future will look like, at least functionally for the company.  Over the course of today, I had several friends and readers ping me, giving me a virtual nudge in the ribs, and saying something to the effect of “I can’t wait to hear what you are going to say about this!,” as if the news of celeb breakup just hit the wires.

Well, I may disappoint because I’m not going to forecast Microsoft’s doom.  Sure, a few concerns immediately come to mind and I tweeted them this morning.  It looks a lot like an attempt to return, at least structurally, to the heyday of twenty years ago, when the company was a third of its current size, Windows was a king rising, and money flowed down the hallways, sprouting millionaires at every office.  Back then, Apple was struggling to find its way, Google and Facebook didn’t exist and clouds were still something we laid on our backs to gaze up at.  Those days are  gone and as Don Henley sang, “Don’t look back, you can never look back.”

Microsoft is going totally functional- it’s a rigid, sterile model that Sinofsky championed in Windows and Office, and that now is being pushed to its extremity by re-centralizing everything, including Marketing and Finance.  It is a stifling model that forces people to be incredibly narrow, albeit deep in their skills development, at the risk of stunting creativity and well-rounded thinking.  Further, it’s been my experience that it takes a tremendous amount of work to build respect and communication across disciplines.  Engineering cannot be the only voice in the room- the competition is too fierce and engineering has been pushed to think myopically about technology for too long already.

As I said in an earlier blog post, there will be several more cards dealt in this hand over the coming months- this is just the opening ante.  One great strength of this restructure is that it puts “everyone in one room,” so that all the finance or engineering or marketing people can be viewed as a whole and no doubt, a lot of the redundancies will be eliminated.  I think this is a tacit acknowledgement that this needs to happen and the functional structure will make that process easier.

But once that’s done, will this model truly make Microsoft nimble, communicative, collaborative, decisive, and motivated, as Steve confidently stated?  It remains to be seen and despite my criticisms, I sincerely hope so.

There were a few glimmers of promise including a watershed moment for the senior leadership team (SLT).  As part of today’s announcement, we saw something wonderful (no, not the NSA revelations– that was NOT wonderful)- three women hold key positions within the top tier of leadership!  Amy Hood as CFO, Tami Reller in charge of Marketing, and most significantly, Julie Larson-Green as the head of the Devices and Studios Group- with some already crowning her heir-apparent.  Julie in particular has a reputation for driving collaboration and communication and if she can truly work that magic, it will be a huge boon to her new organization and to the SLT.  I couldn’t be pulling harder for Amy, Tami, and Julie to be successful in their new roles.

I do not want to predict the failure of this new structure nor sell short the strengths of the “new” leadership team- that would be akin to toasting a couple at their wedding and then predicting their divorce over cake.  Yes, there are flaws, there is a heck of a lot of baggage, there are monumental challenges competitively- but there are also thousands of smart, dedicated people within the company who are betting their careers on this turn around- and I DO believe in them.  On THIS day, I will look toward the future and wish the company every success.  Prost!

But let’s talk in 9 months.

Getting Heard- Upsides and Lessons Learned the Hard Way

Wow- getting a lot of hits on your blog is AWESOME!  I am thrilled by the reception my post received.  A person could get used to being read!  After my “Ballmer” post and subsequent interview by Emily Parkhurst with the Puget Sound Business Journal, I found myself confronted with the challenge of the “follow up” or second act, and as Sheryl Sandburg so capably talks about in her book, Lean In, women are often beset by feelings of “being lucky” or success being a “fluke,” which of course, is self-depreciation at its worst.  Oh no.  Not in THIS house- not with two daughters to be a good role model for.  So I poured myself a stiff drink (at least, metaphorically), put those fears aside and decided to get on with my next post.

First, I’d like to thank everyone that took the time to read my blog- whether you clicked through from Emily’s article or were already a reader.  I have appreciated the thoughtful feedback, the tweets, and the LinkedIn connections.  I’m particularly grateful to everyone who took a few minutes to read a little deeper- whether my post on creating “church without religion” or an early post about my “super boy,” your feedback means a great deal.

Given my relative obscurity, the response has been phenomenal and incredibly positive!  Whether the specific idea of a voluntary severance program caught your attention or just the chance to advocate for change, the consensus is obvious- something’s gotta give at Microsoft.  Sadly, Steve hasn’t called to share his plans, nor has he asked me to consult on the reorg (just to be clear- I’d jump at a chance to help!), so we will all have to wait and see what the next step is.  According to Kara Swisher’s AllthingsD post today, an announcement is coming- perhaps as soon as next week.  Fair to say- I’m hopeful it will be more than just a new set of acronyms and team jackets.

The success of my recent post, due in large part to Emily’s article giving my blog visibility, has me thinking about the challenge of ensuring that diverse ideas and perspectives are heard and valued within large companies and other complex institutions.  Taking your ideas to “the public” is not often a wise or worthwhile way to make your voice heard when you are still an employee and yet, an unsolicited email from an essentially unknown person is unlikely to capture senior leadership’s attention at a large company- trust me, I have tried!

So, how do companies improve the ability for diverse ideas to be heard and more importantly implemented?  Especially the implemented part- putting feedback into a company survey or pitching an innovative business model is one thing but it’s not the same as having that idea put into action and tested for results.  The most common method companies use to foster diversity is hiring more “diverse” people but this falls short on its own.  Sure, hiring a diverse workforce is a good “blunt instrument” approach, but if that diversity is only “in the numbers”, the full benefit of those efforts are not being realized.

Getting to 30%, 40%, or even 50% women in the workforce is a worthwhile (and easy to measure) goal but the crucial question is, does that diversity extend to strategic thinking and decision making (much harder to measure and quantify)?  Watch those stats deteriorate rapidly as you adjust for seniority.  Microsoft is a long way from being there, particularly at the most senior levels, though the recent elevation of the extremely capable Amy Hood to CFO is a step in the right direction.  And diversity is not just a gender thing-  getting to a “50/50” female/male ratio does not guarantee diversity of thought.  What about linear vs. creative, conservative vs. risk taking, short-term vs. long-term focused, customer vs. product?  Xbox is learning these lessons real-time right now.

Would crowdsourcing help?  Could there be a “kickstarter” model for ideas at a company?  Seems promising on the surface- “let the people decide!” but the challenge is overcoming the politics that are part of the process of casting your vote for an idea.  What if being known as someone who liked my blog was a liability within Microsoft?  I think most people at Microsoft, even those who may have disagreed with me, are pretty open-minded, but the potential risk is there and it makes me even more grateful to those colleagues who shared it.

I don’t know what the answer to this question is- it has a complex set variables.  Often, “out of the box” thinking or suggestions miss the bigger picture or may not take into account subtle but legitimate issues or constraints that only more senior leaders know about.  I know I have been “schooled” in the complexity of an issue after presenting a neatly packaged solution as the “fait accompli”, only to learn about serious limitations or factors that I hadn’t accounted for.  I’d leave the meeting or presentation wishing I’d better known the full context and vowing to spend more time trying to look around the corners of an issue before the next time.

However, from these experiences I have learned a couple of important things.  First, go in knowing that your idea will be changed– in fact, 90% of it may be thrown out, but if 10% sticks, that is a significant contribution.  Be proud!  Then reevaluate the 90% that didn’t make the cut and figure out why.  Second, getting feedback- even (perhaps, especially!) criticism means people are listening and that’s a huge compliment.  This one takes time to learn- feedback, particularly harsh criticism, is hard to absorb gracefully, but if someone is taking the time to give you feedback, it means that they believe you are worth teaching and have the capacity to grow.  When you want to start worrying is when you are ignored.

Finally, I believe this with all my heart-  Keep trying, keep standing up, keep waving the flag, and most important- keep caring.  Apathy is the enemy of progress and when you sit back, opt-out, or stop caring, you perpetuate the status quo.  Don’t be surprised when it finally catches up to you.

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