Steve Ballmer waves goodbye

So Steve Ballmer leaves Microsoft within the next year, and his epitaphs are already being cooked-up by many commentators.

Most are lukewarm at best.

I had the privilege to share a platform with Steve at a conference in the late 90′s. He was presenting Microsoft’s collaboration technologies at a groupware (remember that term?) event.

Unfortunately, whoever prepared the laptop for their CEO’s presentation forgot to plug in the power supply.  10 minutes from the end of the presentation, there was an awkward moment when the “5% power remaining” message rudely appeared on the screen and a frantic Microsoft employee materialised  at the foot of the podium asking to plug in the cable.   He was waved  dismissively away by Steve, who declared to the audience that it would be a good test of the battery life.   The audience stopped paying attention to the content of the presentation, and started wondering with increasingly bated breath whether the battery would make it to the end.

Happily, it lasted the distance.

I’m not so sure what happened to that Microsoft employee though.

Steve kindly provided a written endorsement for “Learning to Fly” which, at the time, was a bit of a coup for Geoff and me.  However,  reading the more recent articles about the culture of competition in Microsoft, I’m wondering whether he made it as far as the chapter on creating the right cultural environment for knowledge-sharing.

This week, the  Washington Post  carries an interesting article describing how Microsoft’s stack-ranking damaged collaboration:

while forced rankings can boost employee performance immediately after the system is introduced, the gains fall over time, with people more focused on competing with each other than collaborating.

Slate.com revisited the fable of the two men running away from a bear.  One stops to put on running shoes; the other says, don’t be crazy – you can’t run faster than a bear.  He retorts, I don’t need to – I just need to run faster than you.

So while Google was encouraging its employees to spend 20 percent of their time developing ideas that excited them personally, Ballmer was inadvertently encouraging his to spend a good chunk of their time playing office politics. Why try to outrun the bear when you can just tie your co-workers’ shoelaces?

There were even cases of the most able engineers not wanting to be placed on projects with other high-calibre staff because they knew that they would be force-ranked against them at the year end.

Google’s “grouplets” aren’t the only knowledge-sharing contrast to Microsoft.  BP’s T-shaped Management approach (80% of your time should be spent on your objectives, 20% collaborating and sharing to support someone else’s objectives) was well documented in a much-read HBR article “T-Shaped Managers, Knowledge Management’s Next Generation.”

My favourite current example is Schlumberger’s approach to professional development which requires technical  staff pursuing recognition as principals or fellows (the two highest positions on the technical career ladder) to have led a community of practice, to which they are democratically elected by members of that community.  As a result, knowledge-sharing and collaborative behaviours directly influence technical promotion.  You can’t be individually brilliant and make it to the top – you have to also be socially and behaviourally mature.

All of this feels like a thousand miles from forced ranking bell curves, and it reminds me of the importance of KM partnering with and influencing HR and Talent Management – something which is still relatively unusual.

Let’s hope that Steve Ballmer’s successor sees the connection between performance management and knowledge management, and executes a stack (ranking) dump!