Former VP Laments Microsoft’s Corporate Culture

After reading the op-ed piece by Dick Brass, a former Microsoft vice president, at the New York Times earlier today, my first reaction was that the headline was wrong.

The headline read: “Microsoft’s Creative Destruction.”

But, if Brass is to be believed, there was little creative about the internal destruction wrought within Microsoft. Those familiar with the term “creative destruction” will know that it refers to a process of transformation that accompanies radical innovation. Creative destruction is caused by innovation that displaces and disrupts established businesses, industries, technologies, and value chains.

But what happened at Microsoft, according to Brass, was destruction of creativity, which is a different matter entirely.

It typically offers none of the salutary benefits attributable to creative destruction. There’s no upside to it. The established order, which should be challenged and toppled by innovators and new ideas, grows infirm on its throne, until eventually it dies, its kingdom slowly fading into an impoverished dystopia marked by complacency and pervasive cynicism.

Is that Microsoft’s destiny? I wouldn’t take such a harsh view, though clearly Microsoft has failed repeatedly to set sail for lucrative markets. Yes, Microsoft has its internal rivalries and divisions; but Brass himself admits that’s also true for most large companies. It’s certainly true for nearly all of information technology’s major players.

Brass seems to suggest that it’s a particularly virulent problem at Microsoft. Brass perceives arrogance and even spite in the decisions of Office and Windows VPs who spiked innovations that originated from groups under his leadership. Perhaps it’s true that the people who ran Microsoft’s cash cows were exceptionally mean-spirited and vindictive, eager to bully nominal peers who ran smaller parts of the company. It’s possible, I suppose, but it’s probably not the whole story.

I’ve said here before that Microsoft doesn’t have the best handle on what consumers want or need. As I read Brass’ op-ed piece, I was struck that he led groups involved with consumer-oriented products such as tablet PCs and e-books.

No wonder he met resistance. That resistance existed not because Microsoft’s top executives were controlling or petty or malicious, but because they just didn’t have a good feel for what consumers might like.

At one point, Brass enumerates consumer products and markets where Microsoft failed to make a meaningful impression. Brass might be right about Microsoft’s “dysfunctional corporate culture” contributing to the problem, but I also believe that Microsoft, in its core DNA, is congenitally unsuited to the task of understanding and serving consumers.

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