Microsoft, Innovation and Products

Dick Brass, a former Microsoft executive, published an opinion piece in today’s New York Times which has gotten a lot of buzz on the web.  Microsoft’s CVP of Corporate communications responded on the Official Microsoft Blog so I’ll let that speak for the official response from the company.  What follows is my personal take on the topic and it in no way represents my employer . . . and all that disclaimer stuff.

There was an important point missed in both posts which I think warrants discussion.  That is, that innovation alone is not sufficient to make a successful product.  Furthermore, products can be successful without being particularly innovative.  The brilliance of Steve Jobs, or at least a facet of it, is his ability to think about what makes a successful product and execute relentlessly towards that.  The iPod wasn’t innovative but it was a great product because it was an mp3 player that “just worked” end-to-end which set it apart from its competition at the time.  The iPhone, on the other hand, was both innovative and a great product.  At Microsoft, I think we’ve got both innovation and great products on several fronts – Natal for XBox being a great example of what I’m sure will be both.

Between diligent employees working on products, patent filings, Microsoft Research and various “Labs” teams we’ve got a ton of innovation at Microsoft.  I don’t think it’s a system of innovation that we need.  We need better product thinking – particularly at the senior management levels of the company (and by that I mean partner level and above).  We need senior management who gets their hands dirty with their own products and the products of competitors, who can identify a good marketing plan and who will structure and manage organizations around what is best for the product and its customers.  They need to know the experience our customers have as they move from consideration of a purchase through to our servicing of it once purchased.  That experience has many touch points across many different mediums and organizations and it must have a leader who understands that and pursues execution on it with focus.  Much more has been written about what makes great products so I’ll leave that to all the marketing folks and bloggers out there who have covered that topic to death. 

To use an example from Dick Brass’s piece, we need people who realize that retrofitting Office or Windows to work a little better on the tablet devices is not the right answer for making the tablet a great product.  The right answer is to think about what the right scenarios, tasks, features and interaction models are for a tablet user and go from there.  I don’t care if Visual Studio or even Excel doesn’t work well on a tablet because in my view those don’t address key scenarios.  Do I want to view an attachment somebody sent me on a tablet? Yes.  Do I want to make minor edits?  Perhaps.  Do I want to build complex multi-worksheet spreadsheets with all kinds of formulas and pivot tables which connect to a SQL database?  Hell no.  But I do want to make quick drawings and I want to show pictures to people and annotate them.  I want to take free form notes.  I want to read.  I want to watch a movie while on the plane.  I want to know when and where my next appointment is and what materials I need for it.  Then once we get the experience right and we have the technology that supports it we need to get the right business and marketing support – business model, pricing, distribution, advertising, etc.  It’s not a great product until we’re executing well on all fronts and it might mean that sometimes we cancel or reset something until we get it right.

While no company is perfect and there are some shades of truth to problems Brass calls out, I think Microsoft has a series of innovative and successful products outside of Windows and Office ahead of it and with the right leadership and focus we can deliver on their promise.  In addition to better product thinking, we need to be more agile, branch out from 98052 thinking and be willing to manage beyond the org chart and division P&L but it’s all doable.  Sure, I’ve had my share of frustrations as a Microsoft employee for ten years but I think we’re far from the point of “creative destruction.”

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