Microsoft is undertaking its biggest set of internal changes in years. The organization from the top down is being restructured and realigned. Our performance management system is being revamped. We’re even getting a new CEO to drive the new direction of One Microsoft.
Longtime readers know that I’m thrilled that we’re headed toward One Microsoft, with less redundancy and more sharing. The move is long overdue for our business and customers. But is it an evolution or a revolution?
Evolving your organization and business practices will provide incremental gains in products, productivity, and profitability. However, there are times when incremental gains don’t suffice—times when you need a radical departure from the status quo to either disrupt competitors or respond to disruption. Now is clearly one of those times. Now is the time for revolution. You can stick to old ways and be left behind, or you can champion the change.
I talk about our long-overdue changes in “Mid-life crisis” (chapter 10), The new Microsoft, and Fixing five fundamental flaws.
Why isn’t it sufficient to evolve old approaches? Because piecemeal gains are limited. The classic example is the high jump, which used to be done chest down. People did jump higher each year chest down, but only by a little. However, the height increased dramatically when Fosbury jumped chest up.
Revolution starts with abruptly setting the bar significantly higher—forcing you to rethink your assumptions, take far bigger risks, and break away from tried, true, and trampled old ways. Revolution requires taking a leap instead of a jump.
Evolution is shipping annually instead of every three years. Revolution is shipping daily. Evolution is reducing day-long builds by an hour. Revolution is building in minutes. Evolution is a similar UI on all platforms. Revolution is a single platform.
With all our current changes, is Microsoft undergoing evolution or revolution? That depends on the area. Let’s start with the realignment and reorganization.
Realigning to one OS division, one apps division, and one devices (and studios) division is a radical shift away from the separate product divisions that had their own operating systems, apps, and devices. Yes, we still have a separate division focused on cloud and enterprise, plus another focused on medium and small business software, but overall this realignment is a revolution. It will force the company to share and collaborate in new ways, with the potential to improve our business and customer experience dramatically.
So far, the reorganization associated with that realignment has been mostly evolutionary. Existing leaders were chosen to lead the divisions, and they’ve mostly picked established leaders for the areas below them. There are a few notable exceptions—people working outside their usual boundaries to drive revolutions within their areas—but the remaining established leaders generally don’t stray from what made them successful in the past. That does not a revolution make.
Many people live by Bert Lance’s popular saying, “If it ain't broke, don't fix it.” That’s quite sensible, so long as it really isn’t broken. When it comes to shipping software, Microsoft’s old models aren’t as competitive as they once were. They still work, but they’re slow. In the fast-moving world of interconnected technology, being late is practically the same as not showing up. Nowadays, shipping slowly is broken.
What about Microsoft’s new review system—evolutionary or revolutionary? There is still a fixed sum of money whose distribution to individual employees is determined annually in June and July by their management at that time. However, that distribution can now be set differently for each organization, employee feedback is now timed to coincide with deliverables instead of with annual reviews (no annual review number), and people are valued for their contributions to others, their results that build on the work of others, as well as for their own results.
Overall, the changes are an evolution, since many monetary aspects of the review system are still in place. Regardless, I like the improvements. I’ll miss the transparency and consistency of the old system, but focusing on collaboration, providing timely feedback, and allowing distribution flexibility are welcome changes.
Unfortunately, Microsoft is still top-heavy, overstaffed, overfunded, and slow to promote, and it devalues prior experience. To fix those issues requires revolution, like the one I outline in Fixing five fundamental flaws.
Being both top-heavy and slow to promote may seem at odds, but it’s all about flow of new ideas through the organization. You want regular turnover at the top, with people promoted to fill the gaps, so that innovation is flowing through all levels of the company.
I am delighted that the last of the five fundamental flaws, replicated infrastructure, is being addressed in One Microsoft.
Finally, what about the plan to ship our products on a cadence more typically associated with web services—evolutionary or revolutionary? That’s revolutionary. We’re already seeing the impact of shorter cycles with Office and SQL Server—two products that traditionally shipped every few years, but now ship continuously as part of Office 365 and SQL Azure. Both those products are opening new markets with tremendous growth and opportunity.
Going abruptly from shipping every few years to every few weeks is a stunning change. It’s painful and difficult, as Office and SQL engineers can attest. However, it’s also liberating and enlightening. You soon wonder how you ever shipped software any other way.
I write more about shipping frequently in Cycle time—the soothsayer of productivity.
At Microsoft, it’s always been about changing the world. Sometimes that means changing ourselves and how we work.
We all get comfortable with the status quo. Most engineers are far more interested in the what (cool technology) than the how (icky process). We use whatever method worked for us in the past, regardless of how inefficient or outdated it might be.
However, times change and we must change with them. Sometimes an incremental, evolutionary change isn’t enough. We must challenge ourselves with revolutionary change—demanding several orders of magnitude in improvement. It can be done. It is being done.
Be part of the problem or be part of the solution. I choose to embrace the challenge—for myself and for my team. I hope you’ll join me, leaping forward into a prosperous future.