Satya Nadella’s latest message to the troops – and to the world – is disquieting. It lacks focus, specifics, and, if not soon sharpened, his words will worry employees, developers, customers, and even shareholders.
As I puzzled over the public email Microsoft’s new CEO sent to his troops, Nicolas Boileau’s immortal dictum came to mind:
Whatever is well conceived is clearly said,
And the words to say it flow with ease.
Clarity and ease are sorely missing from Satya Nadella’s 3,100 plodding words, which were supposed to paint a clear, motivating future for 127,000 Microsoftians anxious to know where the new boss is leading them.
Nadella is a repeat befuddler. His first email to employees, sent just after he assumed the CEO mantle on earlier this year, was filled with bombastic and false platitudes:
“We are the only ones who can harness the power of software and deliver it through devices and services that truly empower every individual and every organization. We are the only company with history and continued focus in building platforms and ecosystems that create broad opportunity.”
(More in the February 9th, 2014 Monday Note)
In his latest message, Nadella treats us to more toothless generalities:
“We have clarity in purpose to empower every individual and organization to do more and achieve more. We have the right capabilities to reinvent productivity and platforms for the mobile-first and cloud-first world. Now, we must build the right culture to take advantage of our huge opportunity. And culture change starts with one individual at a time.”
Rather than ceding to the temptation of quoting more gems, let’s turn to a few simple rules of exposition.
First, the hierarchy of ideas:
This admittedly simplistic diagram breaks down an enterprise into four layers and can help diagnose thinking malfunctions.
The top layer deals with the Identity or Culture — I use the two terms interchangeably as one determines the other. One level down, we have Goals, where the group is going. Then come the Strategies or the paths to those goals. Finally, we have the Plan, the deployment of troops, time, and money.
The arrow on the left is a diagnostic tool. It reminds us that as we traverse the diagram from Identity to Plan, the number of words that we need to describe each layer increases. It should only take a few words to limn a company’s identity (Schlumberger, oil services; Disney, family entertainment), describing the company’s goals will be just a tad more verbose (“in 5 years’ time we’ll achieve $X EPS, Y% revenue growth and Z% market share”), and so on.
The arrow also tells us that the “rate of change” — the frequency at which a description changes — follows the same trajectory. Identity should change only very slowly, if ever. At the other end, the plan will need constant adjustment as the company responds to rapidly shifting circumstances, the economy, the competition.
Using the old Microsoft as an example:
— Identity: We’re the emperor of PC software
— Goals: A PC on every desk and home – running our software
— Strategy: Couple the Windows + Office licenses to help OEMs see the light; Embrace and Extend Office competitors.
— Plan: Changes every week.
Returning to Nadella’s prose, can we mine it for words to fill the top three layers? Definitely not.
Second broken rule: Can I disagree? Any text that relies on platitudes says not much at all; in a message-to-the-troops that’s supposed to give direction, irrefutable statements are deadly. Some randomly selected examples in an unfortunately overabundant field:
“[…] we will strike the right balance between using data to create intelligent, personal experiences, while maintaining security and privacy.”
“Together we have the opportunity to create technology that impacts the planet.”
“Obsessing over our customers is everybody’s job.”
If I’m presented with statements I cannot realistically disagree with – We Will Behave With Utmost Integrity – I feel there’s something wrong. If it’s all pro and no con, it’s a con.
There are other violations but I’ll stop in order to avoid the tl;dr infraction I reproach Nadella for: Never make a general statement without immediately following it with the sacramental “For Example”.
“[…] we will modernize our engineering processes to be customer-obsessed, data-driven, speed-oriented and quality-focused.”
… would be more believable if followed by:
“Specifically, we’ll ask each each software engineer to spend two days every month visiting customers on even months, and third party developers on odd ones. They will also spend one day per quarter seconding Customer Service Representatives over our phone banks.”
Satya Nadella is an unusually intelligent man, a Mensa-caliber intellect, well-read, he quotes Nietzsche, Oscar Wilde, and Rainer Maria Rilke. Why, then, does he repeatedly break basic storytelling rules?
Two possible explanations come to mind.
First, because he’s intelligent and literate, he forgot to use an unforgiving editor. ‘Chief, you really want to email that?’ Or, if he used an editor, he was victimized by a sycophantic one. ‘Satya, you nailed it!’
Second, and more likely, Nadella speaks in code. He’s making cryptic statements that are meant to prepare the troops for painful changes. Seemingly bland, obligatory statements about the future will decrypt into wrenching decisions:
“Organizations will change. Mergers and acquisitions will occur. Job responsibilities will evolve. New partnerships will be formed. Tired traditions will be questioned. Our priorities will be adjusted. New skills will be built. New ideas will be heard. New hires will be made. Processes will be simplified. And if you want to thrive at Microsoft and make a world impact, you and your team must add numerous more changes to this list that you will be enthusiastic about driving.”
In plainer English: Shape up or ship out.
Tortured statements from CEOs, politicians, coworkers, spouses, or suppliers, in no hierarchical order, mean one thing: I have something to hide, but I want to be able to say I told you the facts.
With all this in mind, let’s see if we can restate Nadella’s message to the troops:
This is the beginning of our new FY 2015 – and of a new era at Microsoft.
I have good news and bad news.
The bad news is the old Devices and Services mantra won’t work.
For example: I’ve determined we’ll never make money in tablets or smartphones.
So, do we continue to pretend we’re “all in” or do we face reality and make the painful decision to pull out so we can use our resources – including our integrity – to fight winnable battles? With the support of the Microsoft Board, I’ve chosen the latter. We’ll do our utmost to minimize the pain that will naturally arise from this change. Specifically, we’ll offer generous transitions arrangements in and out of the company to concerned Microsoftians and former Nokians.
The good news is we have immense resources to be a major player in the new world of Cloud services and Native Apps for mobile devices. We let the first innings of that game go by, but the sting energizes us. An example of such commitment is the rapid spread of Office applications – and related Cloud services – on any and all mobile devices. All Microsoft Enterprise and Consumer products/services will follow, including Xbox properties.
I realize this will disrupt the status quo and apologize for the pain to come. We have a choice: change or be changed.
Or words (about 200) to that effect.
In parting, Nadella would do well to direct his attention to another literate individual, John Kirk, whose latest essay, Microsoft Is The Very Antithesis Of Strategy, is a devastating analysis that compares the company’s game plan to the advice given by Sun Tzu, Liddell Hart, and Carl von Clausewitz, writers who are more appropriate to the war that Microsoft is in than the authors Microsoft’s CEO seems to favor.
The CEO’s July 10th email promises more developments, probably around the July 22nd Earnings release. Let’s hope he’ll offer sharper and shorter words to describe Microsoft’s entry into the Cloud First – Mobile First era.