On August 23, 2013, Steve Ballmer announced he would retire within 12 months. I’ve been a big fan of Steve since I joined the company in 1995. At the annual company meetings back then, there were only three presentations that counted: Bob Herbold’s financial review, Bill Gates’ technical vision, and Steve Ballmer’s pep rally.

Steve’s speech was always “the hammer”—the last speech of the day. It started with Steve running through the crowd, getting high fives, gasping his way back onto the stage, and then shouting with every fiber in his body, “I LOVE THIS COMPANY!” Well, I love Microsoft too, so when Steve was named Bill’s successor, I felt the company was in good hands. Unfortunately, those hands weren’t good enough to keep our stock and market dominance growing.

Where did Steve’s hands fail to reach? It wasn’t revenue or profit—both grew nicely under Ballmer. It was our outlook. The market thought we were going nowhere. We had already achieved a computer on every desk and in every home. Bill was gone, as was his annual vision. Steve failed to replace it adequately. You probably think it was something else, but you’re wrong.

Eric Aside

We just had our annual company meeting. Steve was “the hammer” for the last time. Being there was moving and emotional. Unfortunately, sentimentality isn’t enough to solve our ills.

If you can dream it

Paint a compelling vision of the future for a group of people capable of achieving it, and give them the means and requirements to get there, and you’ll arrive at that destination. There are countless examples of this—large and small. It is a proven formula for success.

Without a compelling vision, there is no destination to reach. Instead, people do whatever seems fun, interesting, or profitable at the time. That’s nice, and can yield a wide range of isolated successes and failures, but you don’t get anywhere as a company.

Eric Aside

I discuss the importance of vision for establishing new teams in Taking over and aligning large projects in Coordinated agility.

Try, try again

Microsoft had a compelling vision for over twenty years: “A computer on every desk and in every home [running Microsoft software].” It was everything a vision statement should be—ambitious, directing, memorable, and measurable. Our work was focused on increasing the number of computers on desks and in homes.

Once every desk and home in the developed world had a computer, we struggled to find a compelling new vision. In 1999, it was “Empowering people through great software—any time, any place and on any device.” Yuck. Empowering people to do what? Everything? Really? In 2002, we switched to “Enable people and businesses throughout the world to realize their full potential.” Super yuck! Are we still a technology company? In 2008, we aimed to “Create experiences that combine the magic of software with the power of Internet services across a world of devices.” Well, at least we’re back to software, but to what end?

This year we changed the Microsoft vision again. It’s now, “Create a family of devices and services for individuals and businesses that empower people around the globe at home, at work and on the go, for the activities they value most.” Basically, it’s a rambling amalgamation of previous attempts. It’s directing and measurable, but far from ambitious—Apple, Google, and Microsoft are doing this today. I didn’t come to Microsoft to make the same stuff as our competitors. I came to Microsoft to change the world.

You got a better idea?

The problem is that we’ll never surpass our competitors by aiming at them. We must aim past them. Just executing well won’t get it done. We need a compelling vision to drive us forward.

“Yeah well, if Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer, Ray Ozzie, and Craig Mundie can’t come up with a compelling follow-up vision, maybe it’s hopeless.” That’s ridiculous. Creating a compelling vision isn’t hard. What’s tough is abandoning your old vision, and potentially the successful products that came with it. Any ambitious, directing, memorable, and measurable vision is going to sound just as crazy as “A computer on every desk and in every home” and just as threatening to our established businesses.

“Hey, if it’s so easy, why don’t you provide a compelling vision for Microsoft?” Sure, I’ll give you three possibilities:

  • “Engaging computing without effort 24 hours a day.”
  • “Turning science fiction into reality in every home and business.”
  • “Bestowing superpowers to every citizen.”

All three have the implied suffix, “using Microsoft software.” All three make no mention of devices or services. All three would freak out investors, making them wonder if we’ve abandoned our current products and lost our minds. All three make me ridiculously excited to work for Microsoft (in increasing order).

Eric Aside

I realize my three possible visions sound increasingly hokey. So did “a computer on every desk and in every home.” Back then, computers were the size of conference rooms, used by national labs and huge corporations—not by grandmas in their homes.

While my first suggestion may sound the most reasonable, current research is making my last suggestion seem plausible. Smart phones already give you the power to track yourself from space, engage with friends face-to-face at great distances, and know any information anywhere instantly. Soon such devices will be wearable and connected to our senses—I can’t wait! Microsoft should be making this happen.

Yes, like all new technology, wearable devices could and likely will be abused by someone. But the consumerization of technology overwhelmingly provides people with convenience and the capability to improve their lives. Argue all you like, but people vote with their wallets.

The road ahead

Microsoft has a difficult road ahead. As I described in The new Microsoft, and Steve outlined in his reorg mail, we have to realign ourselves into one Microsoft, with one operating system, one marketplace, one cloud, and one search. We have to replace Steve with someone willing to lead us boldly in a new direction. And we need a bold new direction to head towards—a compelling new vision.

Microsoft won’t go out of business tomorrow without a revamped vision. It will take 10 years or more for our established businesses to fail. But that’s the direction we are headed if we do nothing more than chase our competitors.

To be a technology leader 30 years from now, we must look beyond what our competitors are doing and refocus ourselves on a bigger, bolder, brighter future. I want computing without effort. I want to turn science fiction into reality. I want superpowers. We are a company capable of such things. We have the means. Let’s aspire to legendary greatness and reach it.