“Let’s Get on With It”

The phrase “too little, too late” often crops up in descriptions of doomed, last-minute attempts to institute overdue change. In the case of Steve Ballmer, who announced this August that he plans to step down as CEO of Microsoft, it might have been a case of “too much, too late.”

The Wall Street Journal reported that Microsoft’s board had grown frustrated with Ballmer’s delays in remaking the company to reduce its dependence on the fading PC market. At first, Ballmer had put off large changes “because he was focused on releasing in October the next generation of Windows, Microsoft’s longtime cash cow,” according to the Journal. This displeased the board. “Hey, dude, let’s get on with it,” director John Thompson says he told Ballmer. “We’re in suspended animation.”

That’s the too-late part. Then came the too-much part.

Ballmer suddenly began instituting what seemed like drastic changes in the corporate culture, doing things like inviting unit chiefs, who’d reported to Ballmer alone, “to sit together in a circle in his office to foster camaraderie.” He demanded short memos instead of detailed ones as part of a “new mandate to encourage the simplicity needed for collaboration.”

Image credit: Ines Hegedus-Garcia
Image credit: Ines Hegedus-Garcia

Employees resisted. Ultimately, the Journal said, Ballmer realized “that many weren’t going to take his new mandates to heart,” and he “began thinking Microsoft might change faster without him.”

Determining how quickly you can induce real change in an organization is tricky stuff for a manager.

Peter Drucker admired IBM for having “turned around its basic strategy overnight,” when in 1950 it scrapped single-purpose machines for multipurpose computers. And he noted that entire nations have transformed themselves with astonishing swiftness—most notably, perhaps, Japan’s leaders in the Meiji era. “They did it in six months,” Drucker observed in Managing in the Next Society. “The dislocation was unbelievable.”

But truly revamping a corporate culture is all but impossible, Drucker cautioned; the key (as we’ve explored before) is to change behavior based on the existing culture—and that takes time.

Culture—no matter how defined—is singularly persistent,” Drucker wrote in Managing for the Future.

Should Microsoft’s board have been more patient with Steve Ballmer, and he with himself? Or is he right to leave?