in Business Design

Bill Gates Ponders Microsoft’s Future

On the front page of the Wall Street Journal today is an article about Bill Gates’ self-education…

At a spartan lakeside cottage, the Microsoft chief isolates himself for a twice-yearly “Think Week,” which he uses to ponder the future of technology, and then propagate those thoughts across the Microsoft empire.

This might work for Microsoft, given how much momentum they have. As long as Windows, Office, and the server software keep bringing in insane amounts of money, pursuing bits of investment here and there based on one person’s judgment can result in some progress in some places.

For other companies, this way of pursuing innovation falls short for many reasons. For example, it doesn’t leverage the experience of the other executives, much less the entire company, in evaluating these ideas (even if the whole company is contributing ideas, they’re all going through one person’s decision gate). The sum of their good ideas isn’t expanded by seeing connections and generating new ideas (except through Bill). And so on.

It also amounts to founder’s syndrome. Carter McNamara describes founder’s syndrome as “primarily an organizational problem — not primarily a problem of the person in the prominent position. …the organization works according to the personality of the founding chief executive.” What is dogma at the top often filters down the management ranks to be accepted practice throughout the organization as they wait for answers from above.

  1. Is there an element of corporate denial going on here as well, related to founder’s syndrome? The brand of Bill, and whatever genius-like-things Bill chooses to do has enormous power in pop culture (cf. Bruce Springsteen name-checking Bill Gates – faux-erroneously as the maker of the iPod) in his U2 RnR HoF induction) despite the fact that the majority of the business – as you say, Windows, Office – presumably operates extremely independently from him…

    Does Bill’s focused time to explore innovative ideas inspire his organization do the same themselves? Or to feel that their ordinary work (Windows XP SP3 anyone?) is in fact innovative because they are part of an innovative culture?

    Just grasping at straws, I suppose. Intersting point and excellent critique.

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