My plan today was to post a piece on The Five Things You Aren't Allowed to Discuss Inside of Microsoft. This was to follow my earlier piece on The Five Things You Aren't Allowed to Discuss About Linux.
The reason for the "inside" part is I actually don't believe there is anything you can't talk about with regard to Microsoft outside of Microsoft, and since my policy is not to write things I don't believe, breaking that policy in a blog that I've branded as truthful would seem to me to be stupid. I try not to do stupid.
I spent most of the last two weeks crafting the piece, and I will provide a summary, but, as I thought about it, I felt the motivation was more to prove Microsoft wasn't telling me what to write than anything else. I don't know how to prove a negative, so I thought that if I forced a negative piece, particularly one that really aired their dirty laundry and clearly would make them go ballistic, I could prove my independence. In short, I was protecting my own ass from what apparently is a strike force targeting me right now.
Now I hate people that do things like that, I mean hate them with a passion. And, the more I thought about it, the more it felt wrong to do. So I'm not going to do something that I can't be proud of, either. Instead, I'm going to walk you through my personal challenge with Microsoft and, hopefully, solicit your ideas on how to better accomplish what I think needs to be done with them.
First, however, I'll share briefly what I was going to write, because I don't want you to think I'm covering anything up either, and give you the last thing in full depth because I think it is useful for everyone and it truly goes to the heart of Microsoft's problems.
The Five Things You Can't Discuss in Microsoft
As you can see, the first four hit on many of the topics that are likely circulating outside the company, and I could have added others talking about Vista's problems, trust issues, and partner collapses. But, all this would have done is just piss them off and, if you think about it, none of this is new news either inside or outside the company. However, the last section I still think is important, forming the foundation for their difficulties, and I'll share with you the full text of that.
Is Microsoft's Problem the Lack of Good Intelligence? Companies live on intelligence. As we started this, and everything in the middle (if you agree), seems to support the idea that Steve Ballmer himself is the critical problem. However, Steve was successful before he got the job, and if he really is the most qualified CEO to do it, what else could it be?
Even good executives, if they receive bad information, make bad decisions. The fact that Zune would fail was known before the product launched and, at Apple, for instance, the product wouldn't have made it out the door because Jobs would have stopped it personally. You can see a similar level of command and control at HP done in a much more complex company, suggesting that these executives get better information, and act on it, than in companies like Microsoft, where the executive staff seems to be struggling.
There seem to be a lot of problems that appear connected to questionable management decisions of late from Vista's delay to Zune and the escalating EU problems.
The fact that there are problems outside the company with regard to company image, financial performance, competitor success (Apple/Google/Linux/IBM), and even partner collapse (Intel is clearly moving strongly against Microsoft's interests now) suggests sweeping problems that go beyond people and that good business intelligence from both inside and outside the company is lacking. If they simply listened to partners like HP and Dell, their fortunes would likely improve a lot.
This is probably the most important of the things they can't talk about, and it isn't just them, if you think about the U.S.'s global problems right now it flows largely to this same cause. From WMDs to the idea that fewer troops were needed to hold Iraq than take it, the cause appears to bad or corrupt intelligence.
Weighing in personally, I actually believe, and this is true of a lot of companies right now, if the quality of intelligence -- both inside and outside -- was improved, the performance from revenue, to customer satisfaction, to morale, to profit, and revenue would improve as well.
Next we'll look at my own practice in dealing with Microsoft.
The Art of Being Critical and Fixing Microsoft
Over the years I've focused an inordinate amount of my time and resources trying to keep Microsoft from making mistakes. There were two reasons for this. After a massive effort to try to do the same thing at IBM failed, I felt the need to redeem myself and, early in my career, I made a mistake in not taking a job with them for what was a safer, but incredibly foolish career path. At times I actually think about, were I in the company and frustrated, what would someone like me do outside the company to help prevent mistakes that could be avoided.
I am candid, not because I have a death wish, but because I truly believe it does no good to tell executives what they want to hear (something that many of my peers disagree with). It is far more important to tell them what they need to know. If you are constantly critical they won't listen, but if you blend one against the other right you can make progress. As time has gone on, particularly with Microsoft, the problem has become timely executive access.
Earlier this month I wrote a column on Mini-Microsoft and how to do unauthorized employee blogs more effectively, but part of my motivation was to see if I could help him make Microsoft a better company. Part of what I pointed out was the need to balance the good with the bad and say more good things than critical things so that executives would listen and fix the problems that are identified. A rant is fun but it doesn't move the ball any closer to the goal.
One of the problems I've observed with people covering any company is a tendency to be consistent, as in consistently negative or consistently positive, when instead they should probably be negative on the things the company does wrong and positive on the things the firm does right. In other words, consistently appropriate, that is my goal but it does often make me look inconsistent.
So, if you want to do something other than just rant at Microsoft (which, while fun, really is a waste of time and effort), you have to balance the good and bad if you want them to listen and fix things.
This goes to a personal belief, and that is it is generally better to fix something that once worked than it is to replace it with something you don't know will work. Hidden dependencies kill you when you yank and replace an integrated product, and we've seen a lot of that in attempts to replace Windows with Linux. On the UNIX front, however, Linux is really similar and the same risks don't appear to be that important, but they apparently have some concerns over the GPL.
So, I think, it is worth trying to fix Microsoft, but I'm not convinced that enough progress is being made. Unlike any other vendor, Microsoft is critical to the success of the technology segment today -- if they don't get better their partners will eventually find alternatives and the industry probably won't recover until that replacement is complete. That's a long time and I don't really see anyone able to backfill them near term.