The Art of the Grind

This year the Memphis Grizzlies made an improbable appearance in the NBA Western Finals. They went two rounds before losing to the Oklahoma City Thunder in a seven game series run. One of the things that came out of this series was the team rallying cry, “All Heart, Grit, Grind”, it was a motto that came to describe the team’s playing style, its players, and the city it played in.

I bring this up in relation to Microsoft because it needs to reexamine how it goes about its business. The software giant is now free of Dept. of Justice oversight, but it finds itself in a world where its influence is on the wane. No one is waiting or talking about Microsoft in the way they did back in 1995, with awe or fear. That’s reserved for Apple and Google. Largely the posts and comments written are about missteps, blunders, and jokes. And while they do make money, Microsoft is still considered an also ran in technology. When Paul Thurrott asked for opinions about suggestions on how Microsoft could fix itself, I thought somebody could write a book. You would need more that just ten suggestions on how to fix them. So I am going long form.

First a primer on grind. The term grind that I’m about to talk about is about process and execution. For the last decade Microsoft has lumbered into businesses such as gaming,search, and mobile without a clear plan. They used the same practices that they used in the PC market, partnering and licencing, to go into new markets. They threw money at it left and right. They leveraged Windows as is. And the result was mixed. For example they introduced tablet PCs and Ultra Mobile PC platforms (think iPod and iPad) which bombed in the public but did well in service markets. They introduced Plays for Sure and multiple music stores which never took off. If someone did an analysis of both initiatives; they would find a conflict between the needs of Microsoft and their OEM partners, a misreading of the market they were entering; and software that really didn’t work for what they wanted. Now this was just MP3’s and portable devices, you do not want to even consider mobile.

Microsoft has a number of issues it needs to resolve to make it a viable competitor. First and foremost is the need to get a handle on internal politics. Internal politics and competition seriously hurt Redmond. For every story about the Xbox, there are others about projects or platforms that have died because this project manager hated it or fear of the big businesses WIndows and Office being cannibalized. It’s an atmosphere in which similar programs are created and where teams actively work to undermine each other.

This is not the atmosphere in which you can innovate.

This nature of internal conflict hurts a company. You cannot successfully enter a new market if you have one side actively sabotaging you. As a lot of people will and have suggested, Microsoft needs to really cut the amount of management and streamline. For example there were multiple teams who handled online entertainment where one would make more sense.

The solution for this problem will have to come down from the top, and as of now it may need to come from Bill Gates and not Ballmer. Now it won’t be easy. For example Steven Sinofsky (head of Windows) has been said to been behind some of the internal fights; he is also credited with turning around Office and Windows. Secondly, some forms of competition is healthy in the development stage of a product. But there needs to be a cutoff and coalescing around one technology.

So how can Microsoft learn how to grind?

First it needs to simplify and clarify who does what.

Microsoft has Azure, .Net, and NT as the actual software they work on. They need to be housed together under one leadership. They need to have a coordinated roadmap. See if you were say the sneaky type and wanted to create a brand new system, you could go to Sinofsky and be like dude, President of Software (Bigger title means less resistance to change).

Two, Microsoft needs a new Chief Software Architect.

One of the silliest things Steve Ballmer did was to get rid of the Architect position. For a company of this size, they needed someone who can both craft a plan of action and monitor the company. Microsoft needs someone in this role who can discern where the tech is going, who is doing the type of work that needs upgraded t product, and can craft a Microsoft vision. Ray Ozzie had the vision thing, but not the execution.

Fourth, Invest in the People.

They need to look at the people who are turned down at Google. They need to steal the dudes creating the data centers for Facebook. And they need to get the one or two designers at Apple who go to bed cursing Jony Ives. The next truly interesting things made in Redmond will come when they let their people truly push the platform. Investing in employees doesn’t mean only money, but in letting them contribute to the system.

Finally, Learn to execute offensively.

This needs explaining. Right now Microsoft appears to have no clear plan for a tablet. Now the sane would say just put out one based on your phone OS. And that could work, but look at how well that is working for Android. So Redmond appears to be going with redesigning Windows. Now what they should be doing is lining up the applications now, bring in the software developers early, all the while letting out glimpses of the new Win tablet. This is one way of executing. Monitor your opponents, build up your resources, give enough info to titillate, and then lay it on them.

Okay that was part One,tune in tomorrow for consumer stuff. Thanks for reading and please leave a comment

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