This blog is going to have surfing, snowboarding, tech stuff and maybe some 'meaning of life' stuff if I'm feeling particularly stoked.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Does a "Smart Guy" culture stifle innovation?

In the interest of brevity this post makes no reference to the great software Microsoft consistently produces. That's a given with "smart guys", this is about the x factor that makes a company cool.

Robert Scoble recently came in for a lot of stick for the post in which he implored Microsoft (his employer) to drop everything and produce a worthy competitor to the iPod. While Scobles supporters and detractors battled it out in the "blogosphere" the post made me think firstly that this was a very public "let's blow them out of the water"-type rant and secondly that Microsoft, for all their smart guys, never really seem to innovate, yet they appear to have so much potential to do so.

A company with the brainpower, cash and ubiquity of Microsoft should be leading the way and not following (albeit following, overtaking & extinguishing).

Does the "smart guy" culture lead to a company of followers?

I can't pretend to be an authority on MS culture but from books, blogs and indeed visits to Redmond I feel I certainly have a taste for the public perception of that culture.

Bill Gates has been famously quoted as shouting "That's the stupidest thing I have ever heard" upon hearing a point he didn't agree on. This attitude is bound to create a reluctance to throw out new ideas before they are fully formed. Creative types would say these can often be the best ideas.

The book "How would you move Mount Fuji" talks about interviewers who are terrified of being responsible for a "bad hire". This is entirely understandable when you consider that the hiring of a "not so smart guy" would immediately affect your own "smart guy" rating. Why risk that for the chance to hire someone different, they wouldn't fit in here right?

If you need to see some tangible evidence of a follower culture just check out the Microsoft blogs. Obviously the inherent nature of blogging means that trends are spotted early and strenghened quickly, however the eagerness of Microsofties to rush out and buy the latest set-top-box, smart phone or video game, simply because "everyone else has one" is often astounding. I often imagine a deafening bleating sound reverderating round the Redmond campus.

Lastly in the way of evidence, a couple of real-life experiences I have had up in the mother ship. I suppose one of the most surprising things I found the first time I met with a Microsoft development group was the talk of money around the table. While I wanted to talk tech, and I'm not suggesting for one minute that those guys couldn't talk me right out of tech land, the softies always seemed to always drop in a "that wouldn't make money" or "that sounds like a money spinner". Certainly you want every person in the company to be concerned about the bottom line but everyone knows that this is not a ideal bed-fellow for innovation. My second visit was a "tell us what you're doing" call up so that one pretty much speaks for itself in the context of this discussion.

To sum up, this is in no way an anti-Microsoft argument but rather a call to Redmond to start hiring a few people "Bill wouldn't approve of"!