Microsoft Needs More Traitors

Last Updated Feb 11, 2010 3:20 PM EST

Most companies dream of having loyal employees and managers. They want people who will follow the company strategy and stick to their jobs. But at Microsoft, a culture of loyalty has turned into slavish devotion to outdated strategy, outmoded thinking, and personal fiefdoms that today threatens to bring the company down.

There may be industries where sticking to your knitting and following the leader brings success, but high-tech isn't one of them. Innovation requires employees to envision that which is new, managers who will dare novel approaches to business, and top executives who understand that the status quo is the expressway to corporate death. Not that a regard for existing products and services that represent critical revenue lines is foolish, but you can go too far in that direction. Microsoft is approaching the brink of destruction -- or at least irrelevance. Evidence is there aplenty:
  • As former Microsoft VP Dick Brass recently pointed out, MSFT's dominant product groups "prey upon emerging teams, belittle their efforts, compete unfairly against them for resources, and over time hector them out of existence." That's rampant corporate insanity.
  • Former executive Jim Allchin, who was in charge of many things, including developing the Windows server business, avoided buying a Mac only because he worked at Microsoft. Can you imagine being afraid to keep up with a competitor's products? You'd think that someone in charge of Windows would have to know Macs and Linux machines inside out -- especially as he was convinced that the competition was better and emailed the CEO and chairman of the board to say that the company had lost sight of its customers needs.
  • Even when something like iTunes came about, Microsoft couldn't rise from its torpor to match the offering, although Bill Gates urged the action. In most companies, having the chairman of the board say, "Folks, we have a big strategy problem, and we need to fix it" triggers action. At Microsoft, it caused... nothing.
What does it take to shake Microsoft out of its devotion to keeping things as they have always been? I understand the company's need to maintain the Windows and Office franchises as cash cows, but those won't last forever. The company just scraped out of trouble with Windows 7, largely because users with Vista needed something else that worked. The current version is just good enough, although it may also mean that customers postpone the next upgrade cycle for far longer.

At what point does the company have to admit to itself that it has lost its way? At what point do you start paying attention to what competitors are doing and learn from their experience? At what point do you realize that smart business is nurturing the innovation that could represent the next generation of revenue, not quashing it? Not now, if Microsoft's response to Dick Brass is any indication:
There is always the opportunity to do more, to move faster, to bring products and services to the world in new and interesting ways, and we embrace this. But thanks to the contribution of Dick and others on the ClearType team, ClearType certainly stands as an example of how it works well.
Really? Microsoft focused on one narrow example and ignored every other criticism -- the VP in charge of Office refused to adapt the product line to tablet computers, poor timing on Web TV and MP3 players, lost share in key product areas, and the steady exit of the company's smartest employees. Yup, it was ignoring significant criticism because that's not part of the program. It would just make the people in charge look bad.

Maybe the problem is that many traitors already work at Microsoft. They just don't realize it.

Image via Flickr user Iker Merodio, CC 2.0.
  • Erik Sherman On Twitter»

    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.

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