only talented people

[One of the cartoons I did for Seth Godin’s new book, “The Dip”.]
Zakamundo left the following comment here:

Hugh, you say “there are some seriously smart, good people working [at Microsoft] who yes, can still change the world for the better”.
You may well be right. But the question that the recent court action poses, and the question that the comments on this thread suggests, and the question that even you appear defensive on, is this:
Can these people change Microsoft for the better?
Now it might be that Microsoft is great, and people don’t realise it – then ‘all’ MS needs is a good and consistent marketing exercise. But it is a big corporation, and its intended audience (um, almost everyone?) will have perceptions with significant inertia. And thats assuming MSFT can stay on-message all the time – can they aspire to match the impact and values of Apple’s marketing for instance?
Or it might be that Microsoft as a corporation is possessed by a corporate culture that generates external behavior that is jealous of others, patronising to its clients and bullying to those smaller. In which case the external audience’s perceptions are rooted in reality, and the Blue Monster crowd have a problem on their hands.
I spent 15 years working in investment banking (derivatives trading) – full of hugely intelligent, focussed people. Some were great, and really did want to effect positive change from within. What I found fascinating, and somewhat depressing, was the longevity and all-pervasiveness of the corporate culture – different at each of the 3 institutions I worked for, but persistent at each one.
One example I can give : I too tried to change organisations from within, and was a major sponsor of the ‘new’ communication tools of wikis, chat and blogs at the most recent bank that employed me. Huge amounts of my management time and effort went into this, and yet each time I took my foot off the gas, the use of these tools would evaporate. There was a rather obvious lack of overt senior management support for the use and distribution of these tools, and that company is still stuck in the email age.
The way corporate life works is that change needs to come from the top down, as well as the bottom up. Feverish activity in the middle is at risk of being wasted. I think it is a pleasant diversion to dream of a better, fairer worlds, with corporate charters drawn up as a response to Cluetrain manifestoes, but my experience and observation is that it’s just not how it works. Am more than happy to be proved or persuaded otherwise.
Sorry for the rant,

Here’s my reply:

No worries about the rant. That’s what the blogosphere is for 😉
I disagree with you, though, at least partially. I think small changes can lead to big changes. Though exactly how is not always immediately obvious from the onset [And we have thousands of years of mythology- everything from Homer, to Jesus, to King Arthur, to Star Wars- telling us the exact same thing].
What I like about the Blue Monster [and what I’ve liked from the very beginning] is that nobody owns the conversation- Not me, not MSFT, not the anti-MSFT crowd, not the media. It has a life of its own- which is what keeps it interesting…

[This entry has been added to the Blue Monster series.]


  1. What I like about the Blue Monster [and what I’ve liked from the very beginning] is that nobody owns it- Not me, not MSFT, not the anti-MSFT crowd, not the media. It has a life of its own- which is what keeps it interesting…
    So, you’re saying that it’s open source? :-)
    You might want to carefully make clear when you’re referring to “The Blue Monster” (i.e. the image and the mico-meme it represents), and when you’re refering to MSFT itself; the distinction is unclear.
    Recent events suggest a re-sloganing though: “We’re Microsoft and you’re not: Go home and don’t change our world”
    The timing of MSFT’s recent attack is interesting re: the court decision on what is patentable. It seems to me that MSFT has decided that their portfolio has just taken a huge hit in value and it’s time to hold a fire sale; using FUD to scare off the millions of people out there trying out Linux in the face of losing even more control over thier systems to Vista.

  2. “Recent events suggest a re-sloganing though: “We’re Microsoft and you’re not: Go home and don’t change our world””
    Maggie, I find that remark narrow-minded and glib. Especially coming from a Sun-Certified pro like yourself.

  3. hihi
    funny – I get the feeling that we want to agree, but don’t know how…
    I entirely agree with you that “small changes can lead to big changes”. Of course. Our world today is different to our world yesterday. The butterfly effect, Schumpeter etc are all valid. I also agree that ownership of the BM series is distributed (although with your fingerprints more than others on it… :-) )
    The question I was addressing in my post was : can the BM series and those associated with it result in changes that make Microsoft a ‘better’ company?
    Think of corporations as chaotic systems with a powerful reversion to the mean (as in average) corporate culture. Over time, the mean will change. Sometimes slowly (=organic change). Sometimes quickly (=corporate M&A, or the response to disruptive technology).
    I think the problem here is not the acknowledgement that a sum of small changes is important, but how the intended result (a ‘better’ microsoft) can result from these sum of small changes. The chaotic system gets in the way, and serves to amplify, lessen or distort the effects in unintended and unanticipated ways.
    Get this : imagine that the only senior managers to really understand the BM message were the MSFT lawyers. Pow! lets take on the world! FOSS? Lets shut it down! Linux? Patent infringement!
    Am joking, but the above is consistent with the small change leads to big change train of thought.
    The BM message is great, I think it should work for MSFT in loads of positive ways, as many on this blog and elsewhere have said. But on its own, in a vacuum or bubble, it will be hard. It needs visible buy-in from beneath and above. Maybe my experience of corporate life was a particularly poor one, in which case I apologise – I would prefer to be less shackled by the experience.
    I do admire Blue Monster, and the motives behind it. I wish it well.

  4. Thanks for the kind words, Zak.
    Nothing I ever did worthwhile started out with a known, predictable outcome.
    And funnily enough, the same holds true in all the great epics, to bring up the subject of mythology again. Funny how life is like that 😉
    PS: Maggie, I own the drawing, but I don’t own the conversations that take place around it…. the latter being where the real action is.

  5. Hugh & Z: thanks. An interesting discussion. Have to say my decade+ of involvement at IBM, the mothership of tech tankers, confirms Z’s experiences. Being one of the bomb-throwing dissidents thruout the 90s I was able to get a huge amount of interesting new work done three times. Next turn of the culture crank meant prior round got discarded and we had to start over. AFter leaving I’ve kept in close touch and Palmisano has taken them thru another (at least) two turns. Despite 65% of the people being new since ’00 and despite really enormous changes in the business and staffing patterns the culture is the same as it was in the early 90s. Early on somebody commented on the trib tab factor – which is what you’re relying on.
    It’s a noble attempt, very glad to see you taking the shot, it does tell you there are smart people who want to change the way MS does business but until a concerted effort is made by folks who see it as in their interest and in the organization’s interest you’ll be pushing and pulling on a rubber band.
    Friend of mind had a similar experience as a senior exec at GM in the late 90s to early ’00s. When they held meetings the Buick guys were more worried about beating out the other divisions despite everybody knowing that they were a frog being boiled by their own overburdens and the market.
    Best of Luck.

  6. dblwyo, I get your point, totally.
    As they say, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink…”
    Obviously, if MSFT management want to get into the frog-boiling business, there’s little I can do to stop them. But their shareholders [and stakeholders] won’t thank them kindly, if that’s what they ultimately decide.

  7. The only reason this story is getting the press is the name Microsoft. This is the software world with patents folks. It’s an arms race and you need rattle those sabers or find yourself facing several pointy ends.
    IBM sues Amazon because it claims a patent on the “online catalog”. This is because Amazon didn’t want to pay IBM when it asked. All this while claiming to be fore reform:
    There is no logic left to the legal world of software – trying to apply it is patently insane.

  8. I agree with Zakamundo 100% especially with this bit:
    “The way corporate life works is that change needs to come from the top down, as well as the bottom up. Feverish activity in the middle is at risk of being wasted.”
    Yes, and yes again. I see change as a laborious and slow building of a momentum (finding the genie and the neck of the bottle), which must be based on the understanding that you CANNOT change a system from within. What you can do is build a parallel alternative system/process/network with the notion of bypassing the existing one. Do this by doing things that work i.e. small projects under the radar, borrowing the motivation and dynamics for them from the internet…(tools, autonomy, simplicity). Then stand back and watch the bad bits of the company and its culture fight it. Whenever I get this far with my clients and the change to their companies, it always involves getting them into their discomfort zone. There is no ‘safe’ way of doing this. Think of it as a controlled implosion.
    I also know what Hugh means, small things/changes can impact even a big entrenched system but generally they tend to be too minute and therefore too fragile. Occasionally they start a snowball or tap into something bigger and cause a fundamental shift. This however does not offer companies much consolation as it cannot be easily understood, let alone replicated.
    The change may be driven by people from within a system (and yes, they have to be at the top as well as bottom) but they really have to understand that they can’t use the system and its dysfunctional process to change it. There is too much resistance and by the time they crack it, the outside world has overtaken the company by a long way. And that is no route to innovation.
    In my experience, the people who become part of change I try to bring to companies have what I call an ‘oh fuck it’ moment. They have tried to use the approved processes, implement tools and generally do things by the book. They run against a wall and attitudes that firmly hold it in place. When they realise this – it’s time for ‘oh fuck it, I am going to do this anyway’. And that’s when we get really started. :)

  9. Hugh – one last thought. I have no truck with this “Hugh/MSFT is being assimilated by MSFT/Hugh” (delete as appropriate)rubbish. But I am curious as to how you square the area of business that interests you most – The Global Microbrand – with Microsoft. In a simplistic world the two would be mutually exclusive (cue cute Venn diagram with circles as far away as possible from each other). Good or bad, Microsoft is an uber global MACRO brand. But maybe I don’t understand….
    Maybe you don’t square it – maybe you don’t even feel you need to, and anyway I would be the first to say that the world isn’t simple.
    Penny for your thoughts, although I’ve already taken up a fair amount of your time today,

  10. so, uhm, about that drawing (it freakin’ made my heart skip a few beats)… how do you know that? how can you tell? how can you ever be sure?
    i mean, do mediocre people ever realise they are mediocre? is there such thing as realising one’s mediocrity?
    *where’s the spell check button?*

  11. Hugh:
    Having lived the corporate life my whole career I agree with most of what has been said here. And Adriana is right on in terms of the “OSM” (she calls it differently).
    I was with Seth today experiencing a room full of passionate people reacting to this very cartoon. What Seth said in my own words is, find a way to work with people who get mastery. I think that’s what you’re doing at Microsoft. And micro is in the name, isn’t it? That was before it got… well, the other part.
    Good discussion and saluti da Philadelphia.

  12. Well, lets see,
    I had an entire accounting department
    threaten to go on strike
    when they heard we were going
    to the VERY finance unfriendly
    2007 version of excel.
    A buddy is interviewing
    and narrowing down her choice based
    on the version of excel
    at her prospective companies.
    Hhhmmm…call me crazy
    but I think MSFT might
    have a product issue, myself
    (especially as more and more companies
    have a merged VP
    of Finance and Information Systems).

  13. i guess I’m going through an ‘oh fuck it’ period then. I didn’t really know it until I got the BM from Hugh and realised that a few stars were aligning. Microsoft was coming out of a period of hiding (in my view), it has supported the staff desire to go blogging and was starting to engage it’s audience in a conversation. I’d figured BM could be a great totem to drive that conversation externally and it’s proving to be so as this conversation shows. What I hadn’t anticipated was the extent to which BM would be picked up within Microsoft as a rallying call. I see it on email signatures, desktops, blogs and people’s walls. It’s on several of my directors desks and I’m sure the brand police are going to hunt me down soon but it shows there is a desire to affect change from the inside.
    the comments from folks who have been around big business longer than me and despaired at the ability to change from within or bottom up is sobering. I think about this a lot and wonder whether BM is just a pipe dream but for now, it’s an interesting ride that I’m going to continue and see how far up the org it can go before it halts.

  14. Wow! It looks a bit tense in here today. So coming back to the fun parts, nice drawing on today’s cartoon. Good to see the spineless, headless, teeth-clenching, eyebrow-raising err..flying face of talent. I guess while these folks are busy fretting, the smart ones get on with creating the culture.
    Stay ahead. Very cool.

  15. K
    I had teh same misgivings from a few of my clients regarding the new version of Excel. Since they work from home as well as the office, I downloaded a 2007 trial for them and installed it on their home PC’s and asked them to try it out at home where they do little work, and use 2003 at work where they do the most.
    A couple of weeks later, they let me know that they’d rather have the 2007 version at work.
    Some people are going to be very resistant to change, and there’s nothing you can do to change that mindset, but people that are open will find that 2007 is better overall once you get used to the interface. If they really need their old menus, there is an addon out there that brings them back, albeit at a price.
    As for the comic, good stuff. However, some people are what talented people would call mediocre, but the ‘mediocre’ is very happy with their achievements. Mediocrity is relative in the big picture imho. The only way for a mediocre person to realize their ‘mediocrity’, would be to interact with a talented person in the same field of knowledge. Then, their shortcomings in that particular area would be exposed for them to take action on. (Hope that makes sense, my thought process is mediocre~).

  16. James,
    Are your clients heavy, heavy Excel users?
    ‘Cause in Finance we live and breathe Excel.
    Any inefficiencies is a step back
    and with the continuous downsizing,
    we’re time crunched as it is.
    Interesting that you knew immediately that
    it was a menu issue
    and that there’s already an addon available.
    That just about says it all.
    When customers don’t want to “upgrade”
    even after the software is purchased,
    there’s a serious product issue.

  17. K,
    Most complaints about the new Office system have been over the loss of the menu, so it’s generally a safe bet. :)
    I don’t really know how much their finance people use Excel tbh. I’d assume quite a bit since they work at home and at the office, but I can’t say for positive. I wouldn’t say the ribbon is what got them to change tho, it was the added features that made working with the data much easier on their end that prompted them to want to change. They’re basically at a wash productivity wise at the moment, losing time learning the ribbon, but gaining it back working with the data. Over time, it will turn out to be more productive once they get accustomed to the ribbon. They didn’t want to spend extra on the addon either.
    They should have left the menu bar in as an option, I agree. Uptake would have been much higher at this stage imho.

  18. @Steve Clayton:
    Change? What change? From a monster to a blue monster? Same old story. Doomed to failure. Sorry.

  19. Well one good thing to come out of the BM series is the series itself. I wouldn’t miss the cartoons for anything.
    As for Microsoft, I’m not sure. I suspect the vested interests may be too great.
    I echo Hugh’s view, and to put it differently as a Romanian / Israeli colleague of mine once said, “You can take a horse to drink but you can’t make him water”.

  20. Josh, lighten up. Anything that deals in absolutes is doomed to failure.
    If demonifying MSFT gives your life meaning, groovy. But I suspect there’s some symbiosis there.
    In the same way the Right need to demonify bleeding heart liberals to define themselves, and the Left need to demonify Christian Fundamentalists to define themselves.

  21. I agree, the blue monster has a life of its own (right now !!)
    but the moment value creation and brand equity builds on the blue monster- I wonder who will first lay claim that its theirs ?
    Hugh , just a quick question – do those series of drawing still fall under the CC norms ?
    TO be fair to MSFT ( as much as I have my own reservations !) , they did reboot themselves after the DoJ case, so change is possible, its only a matter of time they turn the change knob and move into high throttle. Its an imperative of business- Stakeholders will do anything to keep the fists in the $$ bucket. The leaky bucket syndrome certainly trigger’s kiss ass action, when the chips are down.
    Change does not take forever, change happens instantly..ok thats a Tom Peters Quote :)-

  22. Maggie, I find that remark narrow-minded and glib. Especially coming from a Sun-Certified pro like yourself.
    Well, if it isn’t glib, it can’t be a slogan, you know? If I’m going to parody your slogan, I have to be at least as glib as you are. :-)
    What exactly would be the point of slamming me for having Java certifications? I’ve worked quite a bit with MSFT tools (I was once a Microsoft Product Specialist, long ago and far away) and with Sun tools…and yes, even with IBM tools, over a 35 year career. I know who has and who has not abused my trust.
    When you build software, your work becomes vitally dependent on the structural layers beneath you. Those who control it wield an extraordinary power over the continuing value of your work. This is true even if the software you build is no more complicated than a Word document…which is, if you think about it a bit, software itself.
    On the other hand, if your creative medium is the back of a business card and a pen, you pretty much have total control over what we in the software business world call your “toolchain”…you might consider them to be the “means of production”.
    Would you be as comfortable in your work if some one company could pull the plug on it after the fact and cause it to disappear, or become valueless?
    That’s the big difference between being Java certified and being, say, an MCSE or MSP. If Sun pisses off enough people with their stewardship of the Java platform, somebody else will roll out a compatible alternative…and several times in recent memory this has come very close to happening.
    The nice thing about Java tech is that we don’t have to buy all our tools from the Company Store. When MSFT truly embraces that value system (other than in the sense of “Embrace, extend, extinguish” – Paul Maritz), we’ll know the millenium has truly arrived.

  23. Maggie – nice response. I didn’t get this bitthough – “The nice thing about Java tech is that we don’t have to buy all our tools from the Company Store”. Perhaps haven’t had enough coffee yet this morning so if you could explain I’d really appreciate it.

  24. @ Maggie:
    “What I like about the Blue Monster [and what I’ve liked from the very beginning] is that nobody owns it…”
    A very good point you brought up re. ownership. So I replaced the “it” with “the conversation”, just to be clearer. Thanks for the tip-off :)
    PS. Though I don’t agree with everything you say, I appreciate your obvious passion, lucidity and forthrightness. Thanks Again :)

  25. “we have thousands of years of mythology- everything from Homer, to Jesus, to King Arthur, to Star Wars- telling us the exact same thing”
    …and the trouble is that they’re all FICTION! Try and find some examples from the real world.

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