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NY Times: “Microsoft’s Creative Destruction”

By Mark D. Roberts | Monday, February 8, 2010

Last Thursday I read a striking op-ed piece in the New York Times.  It was written by Dick Brass, a former VP for Microsoft. Brass argues that Microsoft has become a place where genuine innovation is discouraged. Here are a few excerpts:

. . . Microsoft is no longer considered the cool or cutting-edge place to work. There has been a steady exit of its best and brightest. . . .

What happened? Unlike other companies, Microsoft never developed a true system for innovation. Some of my former colleagues argue that it actually developed a system to thwart innovation. Despite having one of the largest and best corporate laboratories in the world, and the luxury of not one but three chief technology officers, the company routinely manages to frustrate the efforts of its visionary thinkers. . . .

Internal competition is common at great companies. It can be wisely encouraged to force ideas to compete. The problem comes when the competition becomes uncontrolled and destructive. At Microsoft, it has created a dysfunctional corporate culture in which the big established groups are allowed to prey upon emerging teams, belittle their efforts, compete unfairly against them for resources, and over time hector them out of existence. It’s not an accident that almost all the executives in charge of Microsoft’s music, e-books, phone, online, search and tablet efforts over the past decade have left.

As a result, while the company has had a truly amazing past and an enviably prosperous present, unless it regains its creative spark, it’s an open question whether it has much of a future.

Of course it’s possible that Brass has been chewing on sour grapes, especially given current excitement over the iPad and the fact that Brass had tried to develop similar technologies at Microsoft, but failed. Nevertheless, his op-ed does raise the question of why Microsoft, once the king of innovation, seems to be coming up with so little that is new and exciting. Or coming up with debacles like Windows Vista.

Those of us who are in positions of leadership of organizations in which innovation matters – and that’s just about every organization in the world, including families, schools, churches, governments, businesses, and you-name-it – would do well to consider whether our corporate culture encourages innovation. Is competition among people and departments healthy or toxic? Do we work well together? Do we support the efforts of others? Are we willing to share the glory, or to cheer when others get it and we don’t? Do we allow for failure? Do we even encourage the sort of innovation that will inevitably lead to failure?

I hope Microsoft can get its act together. I say this as an Apple afficionado (MacBook Pro, iPhone) who nevertheless roots for Microsoft.  I have been a long-time user of Microsoft’s Office suite. And I’ve always felt a certain connection to Bill Gates. If he had finished his undergraduate career at Harvard, he and I would have lived in the same dorm during his senior year (my sophmore year). (Photo: Currier House at the Radcliffe Quad, when I spent three years while in college, just missing Bill Gates.)

But, more importantly, I’m a big believer in the value of competition between companies. For example, we need Microsoft to keep Apple on its toes and vice versa. Similarly, I have cheered the announcement of the iPad, not because I’m planning to run out and buy one when it’s available, but because it will push Amazon to improve the Kindle. I’m a happy Kindle user, but would hope for certain improvements in this product (page numbers, easier ways to share information, etc.).

I am also intrigued by Brass’ op-ed because I am part of an organization that seeks to be innovative. Foundations for Laity Renewal, the parent organization of Laity Lodge, encourages creativity and vision. But, like any established institution, we wrestle with a measure of inertia. The example of Microsoft challenges us to foster innovation and, in particular, to minimize unhealthy competition between people and departments.

Topics: Cultural Commentary |

4 Responses to “NY Times: “Microsoft’s Creative Destruction””

  1. Kozak Says:
    February 8th, 2010 at 10:58 am

    Microsoft has never been an innovator. Their only innovation ever was Basic. Everything after that was either bought (DOS) or stolen (Windows).

  2. John Hindman Says:
    February 8th, 2010 at 4:00 pm

    My understanding is that Basic was created at Dartmouth U. for classroom instructional purposes. Bill Gates as a Harvard undergrad, developed a version of Basic.

  3. Michael W. Kruse Says:
    February 9th, 2010 at 12:11 pm

    I think this points to an enduring feature of market economies. Innovators come along and take market share from existing firms. The innovator endlessly seeks to facilitate and standardize their new product/service to make it ever more efficient and attractive. But this very necessary effort of standardizing around a model of production/service is precisely what works against innovation. The more successful at standardizing a model a firm is the greater the risk of innovating into something else. Thus, new innovators come along and the process begins again.

    I recently did a post at my blog that points out that only 14% of companies that were on the Fortune 500 list in 2009 were there in 1959. It is exceedingly difficult to keep dominance for more than a decade or two in any industry.

    To quote one ancient source of wisdom, “There is a time to build up and a time to tear down.” In market economies there is an endless cycle of both happening simultaneously.

  4. Mark Baker-Wright Says:
    February 9th, 2010 at 4:27 pm

    I’m also a believer that competition should be encouraged, but continue to be shocked that when people look for competition for the Kindle, products like the Sony Reader (which isn’t limited to just to get new books!) are all but ignored….


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