New "Nimble, Collaborative, Decisive" Microsoft So Far None Of Those Things

Steve Ballmer wants Microsoft to get nimble. So like any lean-thinking executive, he typed up a 2,720-word memo. How'd that go? We asked leadership experts for their takes on Ballmer's big moment.

When all but the most productive among us were still hitting the snooze button at 6 a.m. this morning, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer sent out an email to his entire staff. In some 2,720 words, Ballmer detailed his vision for “a far-reaching realignment of the company.”

The shake-up is aimed at pulling Microsoft’s 90,000 employees together into fewer divisions to make the software behemoth behave more like a nimble startup—and maybe even innovate.

In a section subheaded "Communicative," Ballmer wrote: "In the new, rapid-turn world, we need to communicate in ways that don’t just exchange information but drive agility, action, ownership and accountability."

Um, okay. Alignment is a good thing, especially as the company struggles with a series of less-than-stellar product launches. Despite speedier delivery of upgrades (to three months from three years), product groups operating as completely separate entities spawned a portfolio of products that look like they were created by different companies.

Apple was in a tough spot, too, when it restructured in 1997. But Steve Jobs’s announcement was vastly different. As former Appple employee John Lilly noted in a Tumblr post: “Someone in the audience asked him about Michael Dell’s suggestion in the press a few days previous that Apple should just shut down and return the cash to shareholders, and as I recall, Steve’s response was: ‘Fuck Michael Dell. If you want to make Apple great again, let’s get going. If not, get the hell out.’ I think it’s not an overstatement to say that just about everyone in the room loved him at that point, would have followed him off a cliff if that’s where he led.”

Could Ballmer have said it better? We asked some experts to weigh in:

"It's hard to imagine how complex it is to transform and motivate a company as big and far-reaching as Microsoft. However, I've found that teammates at work are just like consumers at home. They want a short summary of how this affects them, more detailed information on demand, and candor throughout. I think the message is powerful here but might get lost on some due to the length and complexity of the language. The best quote I ever heard on communication is, ‘Be brief, be bold and be gone."

—Nick Mehta, CEO of Gainsight

"One thing that really seemed to be missing was a central message that was relatable and repeatable. In an era when everyone is inundated by email, this one is extremely long, has a lot of detail but few phrases to carry forward—there are great nuggets in here, including motivational nuggets, but they are buried."

—Matt Eventoff, owner of Princeton Public Speaking

"This is a drastic cultural shift for Microsoft. Steve Ballmer should have said:

  • I recognize this is an about-face for how we have operated in the past. Gone are the business unit silos; we are arranging by function and now need to work horizontally.
  • I am realigning our rewards and compensation to support the collaboration required.  
  • Annual bonuses will now be linked to team and company goals, so we can put Company, Team, and Individual needs in that order.

—Val Wright, leadership growth expert, Val Wright Consulting

"We like for our messages to be inspiring and fun and with a whole lot of energy mixed in. If the message speaks to you on an emotional level, you are more likely to believe it, deliver on it, and share it with others. When we talk to our Rackers about our vision and culture, we combine the message with stories that everyone can relate to." 

—Sophie Yanez, culture program manager at Rackspace

Obviously, the announcement is just the beginning. The real work is still ahead and employees need more than a long-winded memo to get fired up about the changes. If the reviews from staff on employment site Glassdoor are any indication, Ballmer and company are going to have their work cut out to shift the culture from one heavily based in processes, politics, and “draconian” rankings for staff.
 

“A re-organization is a step forward but will not solve the core cultural issues identified by Ballmer. It won't get them to 'One Microsoft.' The challenge will be to create enough broad-based urgency, given they're so big and there's no immediate crisis. The real question is what are they going to do post-reorganization to actually change the culture. The re-org will not change the way they behave and act because they've spent years and years doing business in competitive silos. It is going to be less about telling people what they need to do differently and more about engaging their hearts and minds to pursue the exciting opportunities ahead for Microsoft.”

—Randy Ottinger, executive vice president at the leadership and strategy firm Kotter International

“Though I like the way he places Microsoft in history, it does leave you wanting more. Employees are very savvy to this kind of stuff and jump to the worst possible conclusions [such as] are they going to be downsized. Short of saying, 'We anticipate no downsizing,' there is no magic bullet. It is up to each manager to address up front that they anticipate they can achieve goals through natural attrition.

Management at every level needs to have an open-door policy for people to challenge information. They need to anticipate questions and discomfort and be ready to respond, not hold hands. They need to treat people with respect and dignity. Caring about people is not in the words [of the announcement]; it’s communicated in meetings from the top down through the organization."

—John Baldoni, author and chair of N2growth

How have you communicated sweeping changes to your staff? What would you have done differently in this memo? Tell us in the comments below.

[Mess Of Colors: Rudchenko Liliia via Shutterstock]

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6 Comments

  • Guest

    i had to scroll to the end of the article to see the date of publication. this is poor design,

  • Hamranhansenhansen

    I don't think the poor construction of the memo is the only problem. The message itself is also a disaster. He's saying that we're going to build one giant round building like Apple, but we're not building it on new land — instead we're going to burn down the 10 skyscrapers we work in right now and build the giant round building ourselves from the parts. Oh, and we're also going to have to ship the same old product faster and better than before while we do this restructuring.

    What he should have done is actually create a vertical startup focused on devices and services, and give it the rights to all Microsoft intellectual property and free reign to poach any Microsoft employee it wants. That is how Apple rebuilt itself into a startup. The NeXT/iMac startup built the 21st century Mac and then they let the classic Mac die. The iPod startup created and shipped the iPod within six months because it stole whatever it wanted from the Mac (QuickTime, iTunes, FireWire, HFS+, even the Chicago typeface from the classic Mac to compliment the grayscale screen.) The iPhone startup stole the iPod hardware and the Mac software, both the OS X core and apps like Safari and Mail. The iPad startup stole the iPhone and turned it back into a PC, stealing even more Mac apps like Keynote and GarageBand along the way.

    If you look at the original iPad, iPhone, iPod, and iMac, they all look handmade compared to their successors, because the originals were made by small teams, working independently and secretly. Later models were revised and refined by the entire company, getting smaller, more sophisticated manufacturing, easier mass production, improved software. And the iPad, iPhone, iPod, and iMac startups were able to scale quickly once they launched because they had all the resources of Apple to support them.

    So the answer for Microsoft is not to magically turn the whole company into a startup, but to actually create startups that go on to take over the whole company by obsoleting its old products and giving its people new products to improve, market, and sell. Most people at Microsoft shouldn't have to think about this at all, they should have just seen a hot new product launch built by a secret startup within Microsoft and then started clamoring for new jobs working on that product's future. As users gradually adopt the hot new product (e.g. a zero-maintenance integrated PC) they gradually stop using the old product (e.g. creaky, leaky Windows PC) and the Microsoft employees gradually move from horizontal old-product jobs to vertical new-product jobs.

    You have to DESIGN a vertical structure for Microsoft employees and users to want to go forward to, not tell them to go forward and build a vertical structure themselves when they get there, out of school spirit and whatever parts are at hand.

    Notice in the memo, Ballmer says “design” only once and it is in reference to marketing and advertisement design, not product design. If they are going to be a product-driven company now instead of marketing-driven company, product design is the road map for where you drive to, not memo design, not marketing design.

  • madmaxmedia

    I like your idea. But I think they did exactly what you suggested, and the result was angry dancing schoolgirls and a $900 million write down.

    I'm being a bit (but not completely) facetious of course, but it goes to show coming up with the right 'process' does not equate to coming up with the right product. It is interesting however, in accounts of Apple product development how many times the development guys had to hide stuff from top brass (and sometimes even Jobs) because they had gone against management in some of their design choices (choices that often turned out to be the right ones.) Which then makes me think of the Microsoft Danger/Kin debacle, where an upper level decision that the new device must run a Windows CE kernel (against the misgivings of everyone actually working in development) totally derailed the project.

  • James O'Gara

    What many executives forget is that the messages they send to employees quickly translates into actions and messages those employees use when engaging with prospects and customers. To be effective, executives must first and foremost formulate a clear, compelling and consistent foundational message that will resonate with employees. This is essential, however it's just the beginning of a long journey. To be successful, a continuous and concerted internal messaging infusion process in required. A process that requires disciplined execution, consistent application and repetition across the organization if they hope it is going to take root. James O'Gara, President/Founder, OnMessage www.itsonmessage.com

  • Phil Simon

    I completely agree:

    I think the message is powerful here but might get lost on some due to
    the length and complexity of the language. The best quote I ever heard
    on communication is, ‘Be brief, be bold and be gone."

    I'm an outsider, but I don't know what the hell he was talking about. If other feel the same way, how can they follow him?

  • madmaxmedia

    Any real message is drowned by way too much obligatory PR. I get you don't want to deflate your troops, but if they company was so great and had released so many great products, yadda yadda yadda, a re-organization wouldn't have been necessary in the first place. I think if you simply cut-and-pasted a few elements, this email would read very much like the last time they re-aligned their corporate divisions to embrance more customer-centric solutions and achieve nimbility and agility and drive symmetries, etc...

    The bad news is made more conspicuous by its absence.

    In the anecdote above, when Steve was questioned about Dell's statement, he didn't backtrack and get defensive and posture about Apple's achievements in the past, the great leadership and engineering of Apple, etc. He got right to the fucking point and spoke his mind. His real mind. You think this email is actually what Ballmer is thinking? If it is, they are in real trouble.