Talent management: Microsoft talent dissipation through distraction


“So much of what we call management consists in making it difficult for people to work.” 
― Peter F. Drucker

The news (August 26, 2013) is full of Microsoft and Steve Ballmer’s resignation (?). Today’s post is a very personal perspective on the implications of an on the sidelines observer on the a couple of talent management (TM) implications.

I have commented on Microsoft’s approach to TM in a previous post (Talent Management: Nokia, RIM & Microsoft vs. Google & Apple) where I talked about hubris and its detrimental effects on effective TM. Today I will focus further on the effects of hubris (which I believe Steve Ballmer loudly and proudly displayed). Hubris is one thing if you have earned the bragging rights, but it carries a price.

Price includes:

  • Easy to be blind to the strength of others’ positions (Ballmer publicly dissed and dismissed the iPhone, Gates and Ballmer dismissed the value of the iPad form factor). Cost? Not responding quickly to a better product proposition.
  • Not understanding what it is that people want, make use of and get value from your own offerings. Windows 8 is by virtually all comments a solution in search of a problem (i.e., that Windows isn’t everywhere) that nobody else really has or cares about.
  • The practice of mocking others (the famous funeral parade for the iPhone)
  • The common practice of being more concerned with what others are doing than doing what you do best, better.

So what, even if the above is all true?

These are examples of distractions. Distractions on the use of talent. TM is more about effective use than any attraction or retention efforts. We have all witnessed sports teams that have great talent yet are not very good. I would suggest that part of the problem is that there are too many distractions and a lack of cohesive focus.

Focus is a strategic purpose enabled by organization, incentives, capital investments, etc. Ballmer was once reported to say that Microsoft would not allow Apple any uncontested area of business. This is a sad joke as it means that Apple “owned” Ballmer’s attention. This means that Ballmer could only ever be a follower for as  long as he was so distracted. His genius and talents were wasted by this type of choice.

We can organize ourselves so the competitive drive is focused externally or internally. Over the years I have read and heard that Microsoft had a culture of intense internal competition. Being competitive is hard work and takes energy, so if it is being directed internally you are giving your external business competitors a wonderful gift.

Internally focused competition I would hazard is more prevalent in organizations that ares sales oriented (bonuses, who gets fired, etc.) and politically motivated organizations where the prize is power over others (or being dominated if you lose). These are settings that have in their core incentive value a win/lose or zero sum game  orientation.

A great competitive strategy is to focus your best and help your competition to lose their focus. How do you do this?  The best approach is to play your own game or line of business. Do what you do best and not even think much about what the competition is doing. Remember, holding a funeral parade is not a celebration of your greatness, it is frat level game of one-upmanship. How can you be doing this and at the same time your very best useful work?

So how do you pay useful attention to what competitors are doing? Where you see them doing great things that customers appreciate, you can always learn how they meet the “job to be done”. The lesson here is how you need to get better if you are to a success.

You can also learn from competitors who are not meeting the “job to be done” task very well. It is my understanding that Apple approached the smartphone business by considering in part how unsatisfying current smartphones were. Once they were clear in their mind how they could provide a superior product they went at it with every effort.

Distractions are a critical source of failure, and it is in the main self inflicted. We choose to allow ourselves to be distracted. We know there are many sources of potential distractions “out there”. It is our strategic task once we decide what we will do. to concentrate on that task.

Microsoft and Steve Ballmer I suspect were not great practitioners of this discipline. The result is a waste of talent they had at hand. This is tragic on so many levels.

Additional Blog Posts on related topics:

Talent Management: How Not to do Performance Management

Talent Management: Nokia, RIM & Microsoft vs. Google & Apple

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About 123stilllearning456

As a management consultant I am passionately interested in talent management and risk/uncertainty issues. In the area of talent management I propose that we seek strategies that look beyond the staffing/employee centric frames of reference. I have been frustrated at the "closing down on possibilities" by these more conventional staffing/employee centric approaches. I have been impressed where people have found systematic solutions to their talent management issues by going beyond the conventional approaches. In the area of risk and uncertainty, I am interested in making this topic relevant to more normal decision making situations. My conceptual foundation is to use the micro-economist's fixed/variable cost theme. I also think it is important to look at these issues for people through their emotional and psychological lens. As a premise I think risk and uncertainty only exist where there is a person who cares about possible events and its consequences. Hence, risk and uncertainty are social based concepts (no sentience, no risk and uncertainty). A major influence on my thinking in this area is Nassim Taleb of "Black Swan" fame. This BLOG provides me with an opportunity to express my thoughts on topics that interest me. As this is an online diary, content is more important to me than polish. I apologize if this distracts from readers' enjoyment and learning. Still I find this a useful way to live up to my namesake, learn more from others and hopefully provoke creative thoughts and ideas in others.
This entry was posted in Decison Making, Performance Management, Risk & Uncertainty, Strategy, Talent Manangement, Values and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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