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March 08, 2006

Microsoft's New Pinball Wizard: Robert Scoble

In the book The Soul of a New Machine, Tom West talks about a game they played at Data General called Pinball. The rule of Pinball is simple: "If you win, you get to play again." Meaning, if you work on a project that is successful, then you get to make demands for people, space, equipment, etc. for your next project.

Microsoft, for better or for worse, doesn’t emphasize winning quite the same way. The rule of Pinball at Microsoft could be more accurately stated as: "If you get tokens, you get to play". Meaning, if you can convince the leadership of the company that a project is worthwhile, then you get to ask for the resources you need to accomplish it.

This view posits that the company runs an internal marketplace, in which you can receive compensation for your credibility and ideas; not compensation in the form of money (although that can follow indirectly), but compensation in the form of the ability to pursue a favorite project. The conversation (in the Cluetrain sense) for this marketplace involves making presentations to interested parties, executive sponsors, and ultimately up to Bill and Steve to get approval. However, it is an imperfect market conversation because the customer for this internal discussion is not the end-user customer of Microsoft. End users will only see projects once they have gotten well beyond this phase, and (more importantly) customers have no vote on whether projects do get beyond this phase, and never have the ability to see and comment on projects which are in the formative stages and competing for resources within Microsoft.

Now, something has come along which has the potential to change that. That something is Robert Scoble. He has created another way to get traction for a project. If you can get Scoble interested in your prototype, so that he blogs about it, does a Channel 9 video, etc. then beyond the immediate satisfaction of recognition, you have the potential to push it closer to the more significant goal of executive approval. In the end Scoble cannot greenlight any projects, but he can throw significant weight behind them. External users can weigh in on the merits and deficiencies of an idea, and early-stage communities can form around them much sooner than in the current system. Plus, the conversation is now taking place (at least partly) on a public blog, so it is much more transparent.

The aim of a compensation system should be to align the goals of individual employees with the goals of the company and the needs of customers. We'll leave aside the question of whether the current "compensation" system (talking, still, about compensation in the form if being allowed to work on a project you want) encourages good behavior, and also the broader question of whether Microsoft's salary/stock/bonus/review/etc compensation system achieves this goal. We now have a new Scoble-based way of playing Pinball Microsoft-style. Will the new system work better than the old one?

I don't really know; the system is still forming, so I'll just throw it out as something to think about. Certainly the new system tilts the field in favor of projects that personally appeal to Robert Scoble: gadgets, social networking, RSS, etc. Then again, the existing system is tilted in favor of projects that personally appealed to Bill Gates. I won't argue against Microsoft's past results, but it could be that if Microsoft is going to target one Average Joe User, then Robert Scoble is a better one than Bill Gates.

Posted by AdamBa at March 8, 2006 10:32 PM

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Oh, dear. I hadn't thought about it quite like this before. I'm not sure whether to be happy or scared. Either way I suppose it beats skunkworks, though. On the other hand, some part of me is beginning to think that a skunkworks proof of concept may be the only way to effect change in the more process-heavy parts of the company . . .

(And no, I'm not involved in a skunkworks project. I don't have enough time to do the work I'm supposed to do, let alone the work I think I *should* do.)

Posted by: Drew at March 9, 2006 12:15 AM