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September 22, 2006

Management Idea #2: Two Degrees of Separation

Continuing my midnight musings on management, here is the second idea: is it reasonable to expect that every employee at Microsoft (or any company that size) could be two degrees of separation from the CEO, in terms of having a meaningful discussion about the future of the company--and if so, with what frequency?

Meaning, everybody has a meaningful conversation about the future with somebody who in turn has a meaningful conversation about the future with Steve Ballmer. In this way, Steve Ballmer gets a view of every employee's opinion, with only one level of indirection in between. Certainly today a lot of people talk to Steve about this--let's call those people the S Team. And lots of people talk about this kind of thing to someone up their management chain. But I am certain that for many people down the org chart there is a gap, where the highest-ranking person they talk to is not a member of the S Team.

The square root of 70,000 is about 265. Thus, if the company was grouped perfectly into 265 people who talked to Steve, and each of those 265 had 265 they were assigned to listen to, then you could cover everybody. The meetings would not have to be long, maybe 10 minutes (I'd rather have it be, say, six individual meetings in an hour rather than one hour-long group meeting with six people). That's enough time to discuss the thing that makes you the most excited, the thing that worries you the most, and one idea for making Microsoft better. So each of the top 265 would have to devote about 45 hours to this. In how short a time is it feasible for someone to devote 45 hours to this? Arguably it would be one of their higher-priority tasks, so I would say spending 2 hours a week isn't too much. Pad it out a bit and you arrive at the calculation that the chosen 265 could each meet with their assigned 265 once every 6 months. Then the top 265 would have to meet with Steve Ballmer every 6 months, but I'm not as concerned about that (for Steve, this would certainly be a high priority).

Naturally, things won't line up that precisely. According to Microsoft PressPass, we have 126 vice presidents right now. If you knock off the more senior VPs who have VPs reporting to them, at the edge of the VP cloud you probably have 100 people who have non-VPs reporting to them. If they each have 5 executives at the General Manager/Directory level working for them, that's 500 people. Looking at it another way, according to rumors on Mini-Microsoft, there are 800-900 partners. Since not all partners are high-level managers, you also get to about 500 people who are in the "just below a VP" level of management.

Let's take those 500 people and put them on the S Team. Meanwhile, each of the 500 has to meet with everybody who reports to them. Now, that averages out to 140 each. BUT, almost everyone I can think of at the General Manager or Director level has more than 140 people reporting to them. Not necessarily a lot more, but enough to make it clear that the distribution is not even (not that I expected it to be). So let's say some of the 500 can have up to 500 people working for them. In our theoretical slicing of the company into 265 265s, we decided that six months was enough time to meet everyone; now with some people having to meet with 500 people (not to mention Steve Ballmer having to meet with the top 500) we should extend the cycle time out to a full year.

So there you have it. Once per year, it should be possible for everybody at Microsoft to have a substantive conversation with somebody about the future of Microsoft, and for that person to synthesize all those conversations and have a substantive conversation with Steve Ballmer about the future of Microsoft. And wouldn't that be a good thing?

Posted by AdamBa at September 22, 2006 06:52 PM

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So I get dizzy just reading your number breakdown. But I like the concept. I'd rather make it simple. Give every employee who got an "achieved" rating a token to redeem for 10 minutes with Bill (Ozzie) or Steve (sorry you have to pick) each year. If you got an "exceeded" you get two tokens...and no bartering your tokens. The question is, what would you say in your 10 minutes? I'd probably pick Ray Ozzie over Steve since my 10 minutes with Steve would spend all the time listing out all the reasons why he should resign.

Posted by: So dizzy at September 22, 2006 10:29 PM

You have a lot of faith in the willingness of senior managers to listen with a mind open enough to learn something. I think that some do and some don't. So this will work best if Steve and Bill guess correctly about who is actually listening and reporting the "voice of the employee" and who is feeding back male bovine excrement. It’s worth a try but I don't see it ever happening.

Posted by: Alfred Thompson at September 23, 2006 06:16 PM