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November 17, 2004

Adam Gopnik Makes Me Think About Microsoft

Adam Gopnik is a New Yorker staff writer. Besides our first names we don't have much in common (except we both grew up in Montreal as the sons of expat univerity professors from Philadelphia). The other Adam is an excellent writer (if you want to get weepy about your kids growing up, check out his book Paris to the Moon). His most notable trait is the ability to whip out these incredibly profound generalizations in the middle of his articles.

He had a good one in the most recent issue, in an article about the French newspaper Le Monde (the nominal subject of the article is irrelevant; in fact the articles really exist as a diversionary tactic to get these Gopnikisms past the notoriously finicky NYer editors).

I quote: "In bureaucratic organizations, things are accomplished in memos; in hierarchical ones, in meetings; and in academic-collegial ones, in the interstices between meetings and in the margins of memos."

This got me thinking as to what kind of organization Microsoft was back in 1990, and what it is like now.

Back in the good ol' days, there were far fewer meetings. I think this was partly for technology reasons. Before we could schedule meetings in Outlook, it was just too hard to have a lot of meetings because meeting organizers could not be sure when people were free. Meetings had to be arranged by sending email to all participants. As a result, ad-hoc scheduled meetings were rare (this had the nice side effect of making people more available for meetings if needed). What you had was scheduled weekly meetings where technical discussions would take place, and the occasional meeting with senior people, where information was mostly transmiteed in one direction (and the time was simply stated as a fact and you had to accomodate it if possible).

And you certainly didn't have a lot of memos (actually you had zero memos, but group- or company-wide emails replaced those; there were very few of those that communicated decisions that had not previously been hashed out in smaller discussions).

What you had instead was what Gopnik calls the "academic-collegial" decision making process; people would wander by other people's offices, or buttonhole each other after meetings or in the hallway ("the interstices between meetings"), or send emails to a few people ("the margins of memos"), and that's where most of the thinking got done.

I think the term "academic-collegiate" would pretty accurately describe the environment that Microsoft management was trying to create, and if we take Gopnik's analysis as correct (and we must, because you can't out-phrasify Adam Gopnik), then they were successful.

Nowadays, people accuse Microsoft of being more bureaucratic. But I think that is inaccurate, because there are still not a lot of large-distribution emails saying "We will do it this way". Instead, Microsoft has become more hierarchical. Because you do have a ton more meetings. Partly it's because now we do have Outlook to reliably schedule meetings, which means there are lots of them, which means people aren't in their offices a lot, which means you have to schedule meetings...and so it goes. But partly it's because Microsoft has become a place where people in management want to keep an eye on things, and that means fewer impromptu decisions between people and more scheduled meetings that can be predicted and tracked and monitored as needed. If people upstairs want to be involved in decision-making, they need to ensure that decisions are made at a predictable time and place.

So remember that. When someone complains that Microsoft is bureaucratic, you can say no, it's actually too hierarchical.

Now get back to your previously scheduled meetings.

Posted by AdamBa at November 17, 2004 09:31 PM

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Dude! I did like reading your blog but it seems like all you do is talk about "what it was like back in the 90's." Is it that you are trying to get you youth back or what. Get over it we all know you started 90 left around 2000 etc. I thought your book was good but your blog is starting to suck!

Posted by: dan at November 18, 2004 05:46 PM

"all the good meetings are taken"

Posted by: at November 18, 2004 08:46 PM