Restructuring Microsoft a Struggle of Control vs Agility

Jul 13

A major buzzword in business today is Agile. More and more managers and CEOs want to embrace the fast moving, quick to adapt model that has fueled some of the most prolific growth in the companies of our day.

Some examples of agile companies include Amazon, Google and a growing number of tech statups.  Amazon releases changes to their website for customers to use every 11.6 seconds. Google is now able to add changes to it’s live search index in a matter of hours for billions of sites around the world. Nimble startups can create a ready-to-sell product in a weekend with very little overhead.

Time to Market

With examples of very large companies able to move so quickly, it may be a surprise to some that Microsoft still releases a new version of its flagship product, the Windows operating system, every couple of years. One explanation may be that an operating system is more complicated than Amazon’s shopping system, but then Microsoft Window’s biggest competitor, Linux, releases several times a year:

Starting in 2004, the release process changed and new kernels started coming out on a regular schedule every 2–3 months…

Microsoft’s CEO, Steve Ballmer, has restructured the company several times during his 13 years at the companies head. Recently he announced yet another restructuring Microsoft. Previous restructurings at Microsoft had the aim of moving the company in a more agile direction. This was accomplished by granting autonomy to individual product groups. This restructuring appears to be going the opposite direction.

The company said it will shift from largely autonomous product groups to a more horizontal structure

While some of the rhetoric from Microsoft about this restructuring claims to improve their overall performance as a company, some analysts are wondering how that will be, since the proposed horizontal structure will require more discussion and meetings.

Control vs. Agility

Michael Gerber describes a business triad in which all business roles fall into one of three main heads: Entrepreneur, Manager and Technician. In the case of the more agile companies I cited above, there is a strong vision. The entrepreneurial clarity is communicated effectively to all employees. Managers and technicians alike understand the vision as its being passed down. Autonomous groups thrive in an environment where vision is clear. It’s even possible to observe the contrast between a company with clear vision and one without when looking at Apple with and without Steve Jobs.

Microsoft is a company of managers and technicians. While Steve Ballmer may be a smart and capable CEO, his vision is too often borrowed. His ideas are born and nurtured in committee. His company his comprised of some of the most brilliant and capable engineers in computer science today. Unfortunately they’re all starving for a vision.

What Microsoft needs is not a new structure, but a passionate, visionary leader that can communicate a view of the world that might be, but that no one else sees. They need to see it so clearly that in spite of belonging to autonomous groups, they’ll all drive for the outcome demanded by the vision being communicated to them.

If Steve Ballmer wants a more agile, relevant Microsoft, he may have to stop posturing for control, and start searching for a vision grand enough that his troops will fall in line behind him.

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