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September 25, 2008

Why Do We Resent Each Other?

At the Company Meeting last week, there was an interesting small subtext to Steve Ballmer's speech that I don't think anybody really picked up on.

It's a tradition that if you are in, say, the Office team, and somebody mentions "Office" at the Meeting, you cheer. Ballmer took note of this habit and then asked how come we don't cheer for other groups? At face value the question seems silly; the practice has always struck me as a benign gesture, sort of like a comedian getting cheers when they ask if there is anybody from Brooklyn here tonight. But Ballmer mentioned it twice, and I think what was really bothering him was something deeper, which I have also noticed.

What I have noticed is that it's not just that people don't cheer when the name of another group is mentioned; they seem to be actively sitting on their hands. This is most apparent during a demo of a product. The group whose product is being demoed is of course excited and/or nervous. But it seems like there are other people in the crowd (which, remember, is all Microsoft employees) who are actively rooting for the demo to go badly--as if that will "show them", even if it's unclear why that team is "them", and what it would really show. It's not just a single demo; they feel that way about the group as a whole.

This certainly was not the case way back when; there was friendly rivalry between Systems and Apps, but we (in Systems) certainly wanted Apps to do well, and were happy for them if their product was doing well. Even in the days of Windows NT vs. Windows 9x, which were a bit more antagonistic, when it came down to somebody suing to try to block the shipment of Windows 98, we all united as Microsoft to boo and hiss.

Now it seems different. I think there are people at Microsoft who are glad what Wii is outselling Xbox, who feel vindicated by the fact that Live Search's market share is not growing, who cackled under their breath when a demo at the Meeting popped up an error message. Understand: I have stated before, and still feel, that I don't understand WHY we are doing the Xbox and would be happier, as a shareholder, if we weren't doing it. But given that the decision has been made that we ARE doing it, I would certainly like to see them succeed, both because we would make more money, and also because I know people who work on Xbox, and they are certainly smart, hard-working people who deserve to achieve massive market success as much as anybody in Windows or Office. It's not a zero-sum game; Zune doing well doesn't take a bigger slice of the pie away from your team, it just makes the pie bigger.

I think this sense is what was really nagging at Ballmer, and I concur. It's fine to disagree with some business decisions we've made; but they've been made, and we should move forward as Microsoft, not as a bunch of infighting teams. In fact, I challenge you, if you work at Microsoft, to support other product groups. You don't have to cheer out loud, but don't jeer in silence either.

Posted by AdamBa at September 25, 2008 09:42 PM


Well done. Yes, it amazing that with all the competitors looking to take MS down, the company still hasn't been able to circle the wagons. But as you point out, when you have groups like Xbox that have been huge money losers for most of this decade, I guess some resentment by other groups is normal. But Ballmer needs to look in the mirror if it's finally nagging him. Because it's his job to set the tone. If groups feel disconnected from each other's success, it's a failure of him and his management team, not 40K Redmond employees.

Posted by: Bob at September 26, 2008 08:15 AM

I once read that Bill Gates woke up every day day and wondered, "Is this the day that we lose our edge and start the long slow decline into mediocrity?" I don't what that day was, but it has surely come. One piece of evidence is Adam's blog, but another is the MS reaction to the Vista fiasco, which is to deny it and pull the plug on XP when that is clearly the best and most stable version of Windows ever.

True, most users of Vista may not know the difference. But some users do and the "experiment" reported in the current issue of Newsweek in which people try a couple of programs on Vista (under an alias) and pronounce it good, are utterly misleading. Let me put my favorite programs into Vista (I couldn't even load them, let alone run them) and them I will decide. Running MS's chosen programs proves nothing. My favorite editor could not be loaded since Vista would not permit any .exe file to be put into program files. I think I even loaded it under an alias, but it wouldn't permit me to rename it .exe. Eventually, I loaded it under root. My command prompt (4NT) loaded but would not run. My TeX program (TeXLive 2007) would load and even run, but could not generate fonts. I got a different version (MikTeX) that came on a CD as 1142 files, one called setup.exe. When I put it in, Win Explorer showed only 1141 files and guess which one it refused to show. (I was able to install it from a command prompt, however, and it ran and even generated fonts properly). Is it any wonder that I paid someone to downgrade my brand new laptop to XP?

But MS knows best and I don't what I will do when it comes to buying a new computer. Maybe I won't ever. If only my editor could be run under Linux, I would move in a shot.

This is something I would like to see Adam blog about.

Posted by: Marble Chair at September 27, 2008 08:15 AM

This is a classic management challenge in a stack ranked company. All entities in an organization from individuals up to entire divisions/groups constantly tread the line between competing and cooperating with their peers in order to maximize their own outcome at review time. When cooperation and competition are in balance the organization can be very productive but if it skews too far one way or another it gets inefficient.

From the outside looking in Microsoft has a famously competitive culture that maybe has become just a little too competitive. The fix has to come from the bottom up however, culture eats strategy for breakfast and the only way to change culture is to lead by example. So instead of telling everybody else to not silently jeer start cheering yourself for products you think are deserving of applause.

Posted by: Andrew at September 29, 2008 12:31 PM

Also, your comment about it not being a zero-sum game is a little naive. All companies, even Microsoft, has limited resources (be it money, people, space etc.) and the individual parts of the company have to compete for those resources. As always in a competitive situation, simply being marginally better than your rival is often sufficient.

Posted by: Andrew at September 29, 2008 12:50 PM

And another thing :-), as a shareholder I think the Xbox is an example of something that Microsoft should do *more* of not less. Together with Xbox Live it's an example of an innovative complex system that just works. It's also an example of a product that got out from under the quite frankly tarnished Microsoft brand to the point where people don't associate it with the various negative connotations that Microsoft invokes in the OS and apps space. Even the red ring of death hardware failures, while causing a huge financial loss, hasn't resulted in much of a hit to the brand.

Zune clearly tried to take the same approach but that original first-gen-iPod knock-off sucked so hard it has all but killed the brand. If they could only have waited until they had a real competitor that the flash based Zunes represent then they might have had a shot instead of being the also-also-ran.

Posted by: Andrew at October 1, 2008 11:15 AM