Scoble writes of a recent interview he did for Channel 9, Microsoft’s latest effort at connecting with the developer community. (Give it a look; even the most jaded Microsoft critic would be hard-pressed to find fault with the transparency Channel 9 represents.) He says:
There were no PR people around. No lawyers. No execs making sure we’re “on message.”
We were joking about this about Microsoft’s culture (I can’t imagine being able to do this kind of work at any other company — most seem to want to control their messages too much to let five guys put videos out on the Web without much, if any, official oversight). It was one of the things that most blew Sells away when he came here. Before he worked here he thought everything ran top-down and was controlled. Instead, he found, people are expected to do their jobs and do them right with very little oversight. It’s chaotic inside the beast, and not controlled at all. But, we communicate rapidly and share tons of stories internally in our networks. That’s why to the outside world it looks very controlling and synchronized.
I remember my first visit to Redmond. I was working for a Microsoft development partner, one of their “managed partners” (which just meant we got somewhat special attention over the thousands of partners Microsoft has). Twice a year, Microsoft invited reps from these partners for a three day summit to tell us what they were up to, discuss business strategy, and invite feedback.
Being on campus was fun — getting to shop at the Microsoft company store (at employee rates) didn’t suck either. But what I recall most vividly about being on campus was how consistently on message the group was. Everyone — from the big-time GMs who presented, down to the individual product managers who were closest to the development teams — knew who their competition was (Sun), knew why they were winning the battle, knew what their short- and long-term plans were and how their job fit into the bigger picture.
That’s a hard enough thing to accomplish when you’re a company of 100, or even 10. But for a company of over 30,000 employees? Pretty remarkable. (Also notable: people loved their jobs.)
It reminds me of a book by Charles Ferguson called High Stakes, No Prisoners about how he founded Vermeer Technologies, the company that created FrontPage and got bought by Microsoft. I remember how Ferguson and several co-workers spoke admiringly (even if it was grudging admiration) of how the smartest person in the company was running the company, and that they all knew where they were going. (If you’ve read the book, you also know that Ferguson isn’t entirely appreciative of all things Microsoft, so note that the admiration comes with a large asterisk attached.)
In any event, if you want to read a great book about a company that launched during the beginning of the bubble, High Stakes is an underrated book that pulls no punches. I can’t imagine Ferguson has too many friends left. From a “Business Week review”: written at the time the book came out:
This is one odd, strongly opinionated man’s view of the world. He has such a big ego that he thinks his little software-tools company was a linchpin for Microsoft’s Internet strategy—and he argues so logically and passionately that you’re half-convinced he’s right. At the same time, Ferguson is harshly self-critical, in his own words a ‘‘tough, impatient, angry, suspicious guy.’‘ Match that against a world where a lot of other people exhibit the same characteristics, and fur flies.
There are a few threads to connect here: companies who exhibit strong leadership, empower the ground troops and communicate transparently (internally and externally) are far more likely to excel. Following on the comments I made earlier in the week about decentralized organizations, I’m starting to see some common elements that are worth exploring in more detail.
On that note, next week I’m going to pick up those threads and look back at what went wrong with the Dean campaign, and why I think those three characteristics are an appropriate measure of what worked and what didn’t. (Hint: it had nothing to do with the Internet.)