Microsoft’s New Mission: To Create Real Teamwork, Not Just Teams

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Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates was once asked what management writers he paid attention to. “Well, Drucker of course,” he replied.

In light of the technology giant’s latest big news, I’d suggest that his successor as CEO, Steve Ballmer, quickly do the same.

Solidly profitable but lagging badly in two key markets—smartphones and tablets—as personal computer sales continue to dwindle, Microsoft last week announced that it would undergo a mammoth reorganization. The overhaul is designed chiefly to encourage more cooperation and collaboration across the corporation. “We are rallying behind a single strategy as one company—not a collection of divisional strategies,” Ballmer told employees. “We will see our product line holistically, not as a set of islands.”

What this means in practice, Ballmer explained, is that a high-level corporate “champion” will lead “each major initiative” (whether a product or service) by organizing things so as “to drive a cross-company team for success.”

But as Peter Drucker knew well, establishing teams on paper and fostering genuine teamwork are two entirely different matters.

“The team has obvious strengths,” Drucker wrote in his 1973 book Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices. “Everybody always knows the work of the whole and holds himself or herself responsible for it. It is highly receptive to new ideas and new ways of doing things. And it has great adaptability.

“It also has great shortcomings,” Drucker went on. “It has clarity only if the team leader creates it. It has poor stability. Its economy is low; a team demands continuing attention to its management, to the relationships of people within the task force, to assigning people to jobs, to explanation, deliberation, communication, and so on. Much of the energy of the members goes into keeping things running.”

At the center of this effort is ensuring the proper flow of information. From the top, the team leader must get everyone to pull together, even though the person in charge can’t possibly be an expert in the myriad discrete specialties involved in a companywide undertaking. “There are probably few orchestra conductors who could coax even one note out of a French horn, let alone show the horn player how to do it,” Drucker observed. “But the conductor can focus the horn player’s skill and knowledge on the musicians’ joint performance.”

Meanwhile, it is incumbent on each individual teammate to assume what Drucker called “information responsibility.” This involves not only figuring out what information you must supply to others so that they can do their jobs properly, but determining what exactly you must have to do yours right.

Beyond that, everyone must “communicate their objectives, their priorities and their intended contribution to their fellow workers—up, down and sideways,” Drucker wrote in his 1993 book Post-Capitalist Society. “And it is the responsibility of all members to make sure that their own objectives fit in with the objectives of the entire group.”

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Microsoft, it seems, faces two particular challenges in all of this. The first is coping with its sheer size and scope. Microsoft is huge, with nearly 100,000 employees, and a wide array of products. Building cross-company teams will invariably mean drawing on lots of talent and resources. But if too many people are pulled into any one project, Microsoft risks having them trip over and bang into one another.

“Teams work best when there are few members,” Drucker advised. “The hunting band had seven to 15 members. So do the teams in team sports such as football, baseball, and cricket. If a team gets much larger it becomes unwieldy. Its strengths, such as flexibility and the sense of responsibility of the members, diminish. Its limitations—lack of clarity, communication problems, over-concern with its internal relationships—become crippling weaknesses.”

The second, and quite possibly gravest, area of difficulty will be cultivating the kind of trust that any team must have if it’s going to thrive. Microsoft’s eight product divisions have been infamous for their inability to get along—one of the reasons, it appears, behind the reorganization, which replaces the eight with four broader-themed units.

But rivalries and jealousies cannot be eliminated by the stroke of a pen. Moving into a new kind of team structure “demands the most difficult learning imaginable: unlearning,” Drucker wrote. “It demands giving up . . . habits of a lifetime, deeply cherished values of craftsmanship and professionalism, and—perhaps the most difficult of all—it demands giving up old and treasured human relationships. It means abandoning what people have always considered ‘our community’ or ‘our family.’”

Ultimately, no rejiggering of the org chart—even one that took six months to put together—is a panacea. “No organization will ever be perfect,” Drucker warned. “A certain amount of friction, of incongruity, of organizational confusion is inevitable.”

Perhaps the best that Ballmer and his lieutenants can hope for is that there will be a little less friction, incongruity, and confusion than before.

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