Mr. Gates, I know you have distanced yourself from the operations of Microsoft, but…
There are more than a few stories that relate the downfall at Microsoft over the last and “lost decade” to your relinquishing control and handing it off to Steve Ballmer. The recent article in Vanity Fair is not the first such story I have heard about how Microsoft lost its way as it moved from an innovative company to a ROI (Return on Innovation) business. I have been hearing about this for years from people I know inside Microsoft who not surprisingly chose to be unnamed. Apple made the same mistake when it turned itself over to John Sculley and lost its way as a design and innovation company. As we all know, Steve Jobs, was able to come back and revive it and much more.
When the second or next coming of Microsoft will be led by you (doubtful) or someone else, it is clear that it is time to thank Mr. Ballmer and show him the exit door. What I am writing about is why that hasn’t happened and what needs to change for it to happen.
You are probably familiar with Konrad Lorenz’ famous experiment where he discovered that if grey lag geese were reared by him from hatching, they would treat him like a parental bird and follow him. That has since been referred to as the baby duck syndrome.
Wikipedia goes on to explain about the baby duck syndrome with regard to human-computer interaction. “This syndrome denotes the tendency for computer users to ‘imprint’ on the first system they learn, then judge other systems by their similarity to that first system. The result is that ‘users generally prefer systems similar to those they learned on and dislike unfamiliar systems.’ The issue may present itself relatively early in a computer user’s experience, and has been observed to impede education of students in new software systems.”
One of the reasons it is so difficult to break a connection to something or someone you have imprinted on, is that after you imprint, it seeds into your mind and goes from working memory to stored hard-wired memory from which it is much more difficult to sever that attachment.
Is it possible that you imprinted on Mr. Ballmer at a time in your career at Microsoft where you needed someone with a different skill set and powerful enough presence to drive it through to a wide variety of stakeholders and to eclipse you enough for people to let go of their attachment to you? Up until that time, your presence in the minds of people inside and outside Microsoft, held sway. It was probably no accident that you chose and then imprinted upon Mr. Ballmer, not only because you needed someone else besides you to be the one that people listened to and had confidence in, but you needed someone that you would listen to and have confidence in.
I am speculating that Mr. Ballmer’s early success at driving Microsoft to business milestones that you couldn’t, coupled with his over-the-top, take no prisoners management style allowed you to relinquish more and more to him with confidence.
Well Mr. Gates, consider the possibility that you imprinted so strongly on Mr. Ballmer to be able to fill your skill set deficits that once you were attached to that view of him, you may have had difficulty in viewing him objectively. And the combination of your and Mr. Ballmer’s “reality distortion fields” (yes, Mr. Jobs was not the only one with one) were sufficient to keep others from pushing either of you to make decisions based on flagging results including innovation misfires and of course most notably the lagging stock price.
Ironically if you apply Microsoft management stacking practice as a response to objective performance results, you might be hard pressed to justify keeping Mr. Ballmer as CEO. Maybe it’s time to realize that the Mr. Ballmer as the ”bull in a China shop” has turned out to be “the elephant in the room” that now needs to be addressed.
Better, smarter and wiser people than you have been punked, so don’t take it so personally. If it’s true, just take it seriously, make the necessary corrections and move on.
P.S. For what it’s worth, I have seriously “imprinted” on Mrs. Gates’ and your foundation as one of the preeminent commitments by human beings to better mankind. Blessings to you both for that.