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.