Corporate life

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.”

You have junk

John Naughton in The Observer on an old favourite:

'You can', my mother used to say, 'have too much of a good thing'. Since she was generally not in favour of good things (which she equated with self-indulgence), I habitually disregarded this advice. But I am now beginning to wonder if she may have been right after all.

This thought is sparked by an inspection of my email system. I have 852 messages in my 'office' inbox. Correction, make that 854: two more came in while I was typing that last sentence. My personal inbox has 1,304 messages.

My spam-blocking service tells me that, in the past 30 days, I received no fewer than 3,920 invitations to: enhance my, er, physique; invest in dodgy shares; send money to the deserving widows of Nigerian dictators; and purchase Viagra. I am - literally - drowning in email.

Well, not literally, of course.

If I took it seriously, I could spend all day dealing with my email and never do any actual work. Which is why, increasingly, I tend to ignore my inboxes. This may seem discourteous, but in fact it isn't - because much of 'my' email isn't actually aimed primarily at me at all. I am just one of the people who is cc'd on the correspondence. In other words, people who are communicating with one another have added me as a kind of bystander. Their motives for doing this are varied. In some cases they are doing me a courtesy, or trying to persuade me that they're not doing things behind my back. (Little do they know that I couldn't care less.) In other cases, they are simply being lazy or covering their arses in case anything goes wrong, at which point they will say that I was 'kept in the loop' and accordingly must share some of the blame.

Yes, but I think it's more complex than that.  Most people tend to copy their emails too widely, but that's because it's often easier to do that than to figure out whether each person might need (or want) to know what is going on.   

The problem is not with email as such, but with the way organisations have subverted - or perverted - it for bureaucratic purposes. And they have done it for the same reason that spammers have perverted personal email: because it's cheap and easy to do. In the old days, big organisations had massive internal mail systems, with post-rooms and messengers lugging bags or trolleys of paper. Email offered a way of dispensing with all this bother and expense. So organisations began to deluge employees with electronic documents. And the flood of email rapidly became the torrent that paralyses us today. Email has morphed from a communication channel into a means of bureaucratic control.

Well, up to a point - I agree that most organizations haven't bothered to think through the way they use email, but there is also an obvious deficiency in most email software - the subject line is rarely enough to tell the recipient what they need to do with an email (and many people don't even to make the subject meaningful or change it when the conversation develops). 

It seems to me that what we need is a more structured approach so that you have to specify both a category (e.g, customer, project, etc.) and the action required by each recipient - and if it is just for information then it could be filed in the correct folder and never go into the recipient's inbox.  

Of course this would also require users of email to be more disciplined and to think before sending a message.  Which has to be a good thing - currently it's just too easy to fire off an email to dozens of people, and the result is that many people either ignore most of they emails they receive, or waste far too much time processing them.      

HR weasels

What is the point of an HR department?  Answers on the back of a postage stamp, please.

I think I have been incredibly fortunate in my career (if you can call it that).  Only once have I been employed by a company that actually had an HR department, and as luck would have it they didn't see the need to have anyone in Asia.  Well, they did hire someone but I am pleased to say that I played a small part in getting her booted out of the company - and as I recall they never replaced her (not in my time, anyway).

Spike is less fortunate:

As some of you know, I do a little bit of writing for one of the local newspapers. We recently were lectured about conflict of interest. Following that lecture, I decided that this writing could be construed as conflict of interest under the very broadest possible definition of that term. So I contacted the proper people and informed them of what I was doing, they took two months to get back to me, after which they issued a legal letter saying that what I'm doing is okay.

A copy of this letter was sent to the Human Resources weasel in the home office who looks after my division and this weasel then gave a copy of it to my boss, telling him essentially that I was a bad person doing a bad thing and that I got caught and that they decided I could keep on doing this bad thing but that I'm a bad person and they need to keep an eye on me.

And when I explained to my boss that I was the one who told the company what I was doing, he was also like, "I don't know what's wrong with that guy," and the answer, simply put, is that 90% of people who work in Human Resources are subhuman.

Sadly I think this is true.  I guess there's a clue in the name of the department.

Addicted to email

Email is bad for you.  A new UK study, reported in Friday’s Guardian, comes to this unsurprising conclusion:

Respondents' minds were all over the place as they faced new questions and challenges every time an email dropped into their inbox. Productivity at work was damaged and the effect on staff who could not resist trying to juggle new messages with existing work was the equivalent, over a day, to the loss of a night's sleep.

Continue reading "Addicted to email" »

Appearances can be deceptive

There has been a lot written about the book "Bonjour Paresse" (Hello Laziness - The Art and the Importance of Doing the Least Possible at the Workplace) that has recently been published in France. It follows in the fine tradition set by Scott Adams and others in satirising life in the workplace, and has tips on how to keep your job without working very hard.

Whilst I was walking around the office this morning, I was reminded of one excellent piece of advice in this book. It is vital to look busy, and so you should walk around looking purposeful and carrying papers or a file. This way your boss will assume that you are working hard, regardless of what you actually do. Very true.

Continue reading "Appearances can be deceptive" »


Hey look, I can do dull as well as the next man (see story below) Since Simon is away in China and not posting this type of stuff, I think I need to fill the gap. So, can anyone explain this phenomenon?

Quite often, by around 5 o'clock I have nearly finished the things I think I need to do for the day, and I am contemplating leaving fairly promptly.

However, in the next hour someone will ask me something, call me, or send me an email, and I will end up with another task that I reckon I could (or should) finish before I leave. So by the time it gets to 6.30 I realize that I'm not going to get it all finished much before 7, and I'm certainly not going to get away promptly as I had hoped.

On the other hand, if I'm still quite busy at 5 o'clock, there's a pretty good chance that I'll finish (or at least reach a convenient breakpoint) before 6.30 and will be able to get away reasonably early.

Gantt Chart hell

Too busy to post anything much as I am planning a project, which is a horrible, tedious, job, especially with Microsoft Project (or at least the version I am using). However, I did enjoy these two recent Dilbert cartoons that you can find here and here.

Is it worth upgrading to the latest version of MS Project? Have they finally made the program even slightly intuitive?

What price perfection?

Interesting piece in the Gweilo Diaries, referring to an article in the FT. Hemlock says that he "hates excellence" and that "good enough is perfect". I'm afraid that the phrase "good enough" is one that I tend to use about a piece of work (done by someone else) when I have given up hope of it being improved and have to accept what has been done. Very much a case of damning with faint praise. However, I do agree that perfection is usually not possible, and that it is very easy to waste time in the vain hope of making something perfect.

Continue reading "What price perfection?" »

Nodding Heads

Following on from my mention of Powerpoint, I found this:

In his book and DVD compilation, "Envisioning Emotional Epistemological Information," David Byrne twists PowerPoint from a marketing tool into a multimedia canvas, pontificating that the software's charts, graphs, bullet points and arrows have changed communication styles.

The 96-page compilation, which debuted in September for $80, is best described as a coffee table book for nerds. The initial printing run of 1,500 copies sold out by mid-December.

The book includes mostly lucid musings on how PowerPoint has ushered in "the end of reason," with pictures of bar charts gone hideously astray, fields of curved arrows that point at nothing, disturbing close-ups of wax hands and eyebrows, and a photo of Dolly the cloned sheep enclosed by punctuation brackets.

The 20-minute DVD, encased in the navy blue hardback cover, features the same abstractions in motion. Byrne wrote most of the music.

Is this clever or pretentious?

[via Slashdot]