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How to drive your best employees away

Interesting article in Vanity Fair about Microsoft’s problems. 

What I hadn’t previously realized was that they use the stupid “stack ranking” system. Maybe it worked well at GE in Jack Welch’s days -  it’s possible that firing 10% of employees every year was a smart strategy for them - but whoever thought that was the answer for Microsoft was definitely asking the wrong question.  

It worked real well for Enron as well. 

Microsoft’s Lost Decade

[..] At the center of the cultural problems was a management system called “stack ranking.” Every current and former Microsoft employee I interviewed—every one—cited stack ranking as the most destructive process inside of Microsoft, something that drove out untold numbers of employees. The system—also referred to as “the performance model,” “the bell curve,” or just “the employee review”—has, with certain variations over the years, worked like this: every unit was forced to declare a certain percentage of employees as top performers, then good performers, then average, then below average, then poor.

“If you were on a team of 10 people, you walked in the first day knowing that, no matter how good everyone was, two people were going to get a great review, seven were going to get mediocre reviews, and one was going to get a terrible review,” said a former software developer. “It leads to employees focusing on competing with each other rather than competing with other companies.”

Supposing Microsoft had managed to hire technology’s top players into a single unit before they made their names elsewhere—Steve Jobs of Apple, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Larry Page of Google, Larry Ellison of Oracle, and Jeff Bezos of Amazon—regardless of performance, under one of the iterations of stack ranking, two of them would have to be rated as below average, with one deemed disastrous.

For that reason, executives said, a lot of Microsoft superstars did everything they could to avoid working alongside other top-notch developers, out of fear that they would be hurt in the rankings. And the reviews had real-world consequences: those at the top received bonuses and promotions; those at the bottom usually received no cash or were shown the door.

Outcomes from the process were never predictable. Employees in certain divisions were given what were known as M.B.O.’s—management business objectives—which were essentially the expectations for what they would accomplish in a particular year. But even achieving every M.B.O. was no guarantee of receiving a high ranking, since some other employee could exceed the assigned performance. As a result, Microsoft employees not only tried to do a good job but also worked hard to make sure their colleagues did not.

“The behavior this engenders, people do everything they can to stay out of the bottom bucket,” one Microsoft engineer said. “People responsible for features will openly sabotage other people’s efforts. One of the most valuable things I learned was to give the appearance of being courteous while withholding just enough information from colleagues to ensure they didn’t get ahead of me on the rankings.”

Worse, because the reviews came every six months, employees and their supervisors—who were also ranked—focused on their short-term performance, rather than on longer efforts to innovate.

“The six-month reviews forced a lot of bad decision-making,” one software designer said. “People planned their days and their years around the review, rather than around products. You really had to focus on the six-month performance, rather than on doing what was right for the company.”

There was some room for bending the numbers a bit. Each team would be within a larger Microsoft group. The supervisors of the teams could have slightly more of their employees in the higher ranks so long as the full group met the required percentages. So, every six months, all of the supervisors in a single group met for a few days of horse trading.

On the first day, the supervisors—as many as 30—gather in a single conference room. Blinds are drawn; doors are closed. A grid containing possible rankings is put up—sometimes on a whiteboard, sometimes on a poster board tacked to the wall—and everyone breaks out Post-it notes. Names of team members are scribbled on the notes, then each manager takes a turn placing the slips of paper into the grid boxes. Usually, though, the numbers don’t work on the first go-round. That’s when the haggling begins.

“There are some pretty impassioned debates and the Post-it notes end up being shuffled around for days so that we can meet the bell curve,” said one Microsoft manager who has participated in a number of the sessions. “It doesn’t always work out well. I myself have had to give rankings to people that they didn’t deserve because of this forced curve.”

The best way to guarantee a higher ranking, executives said, is to keep in mind the realities of those behind-the-scenes debates—every employee has to impress not only his or her boss but bosses from other teams as well. And that means schmoozing and brown-nosing as many supervisors as possible.

“I was told in almost every review that the political game was always important for my career development,” said Brian Cody, a former Microsoft engineer. “It was always much more on ‘Let’s work on the political game’ than on improving my actual performance.”

Like other employees I interviewed, Cody said that the reality of the corporate culture slowed everything down. “It got to the point where I was second-guessing everything I was doing,” he said. “Whenever I had a question for some other team, instead of going to the developer who had the answer, I would first touch base with that developer’s manager, so that he knew what I was working on. That was the only way to be visible to other managers, which you needed for the review.”

I asked Cody whether his review was ever based on the quality of his work. He paused for a very long time. “It was always much less about how I could become a better engineer and much more about my need to improve my visibility among other managers.”

In the end, the stack-ranking system crippled the ability to innovate at Microsoft, executives said. “I wanted to build a team of people who would work together and whose only focus would be on making great software,” said Bill Hill, the former manager. “But you can’t do that at Microsoft.”

Comments

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Priivate Beach

Forced ranking systems are an insult to competent managers. if you're any good as a manager, you don't wait for a performance appraisal to either get rid of your worst performers or do something to improve their performance. In fact the system encourages you to hang on to the dead losses so you have someone to fire at appraisal time without losing any of your capable staff.

Chris

Yes indeed.

But then I see life as a manager as being a constant battle against the madness of HR, of which this is just one manifestation.

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