Microsoft: My take

13 February 2010

A recent NYT article by former Microsoft VP Dick Brass has been doing the rounds. It's pretty middle of the road in terms of its judgement of Microsoft: over-run by middle management, caked in bureaucracy, both of which stifle innovation and creativity.

I'm not really going to give my take, because it seems a bit tawdry when I was only there for two years and was based in London for all of that time. Fortunately I don't have to, because Scott Berkun unravels my half-baked thoughts very succinctly in a small part of his recent assessment of the company.

The primary problem at Microsoft regarding good design & innovation is the diffusion of creative authority. The problem is not the numbers of people at the company, or the layers of management, as many gripe about. Layers don’t help, but it’s not the problem. The real issue is the inability to grant creative authority to the few people worthy of it. Microsoft has always been a place that gives way too many people a say in matters of design, vision and user experience, and it shows in the pervasive mediocrity of the majority of its products. Films need directors. Orchestras need conductors. But if you divide things into 30 pieces and ask 30 people to play creative visionary, mediocrity ensues. The better products at Microsoft are the ones were [sic] VPs modify the distribution of authority to create clear creative authority.

I’ll quickly put that in terms that fellow colleagues of mine at the time will identify with.

Teams are encouraged to be accountable for everything that they do. Strategy, planning, design, execution, analysis. There are a dozen little teams running around, all being accountable for their part of the puzzle, without having any idea or thought about how they will link up with their neighbouring pieces to create a plausible end product.