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Collaboration and the Ballbuster

On the 29 October, a senior exec at Apple – Scott Forstall – leaves. Official line: “change to increase collaboration across hardware, software and services”. Media reports ascribe the departure to the failed attempt at replacing Google Maps in iOS and the significant rifts he was rumoured to have generated with other senior members of the team.

“Software engineers and designers who worked for Forstall were loyal to him and ranked among the hardest working at the company, the people said. Yet his management style also led a several senior executives to leave Apple because they found working with Forstall difficult, several former Apple employees said. The mapping missteps were a final straw, people said.”
(Bloomberg, 30 Oct)

On the 13 November, a senior exec at Windows – Steve Sinofsky – leaves. Media reports infer, contrary to the official memos, that the departure was prompted by the divisive power politics being played between Sinofsky’s Windows team and the rest of the Company.

“Behind the scenes, Sinofsky also achieved what few could do at Microsoft: he changed the culture. He introduced triads, cells each comprising a developer, a tester and a programme manager to speed up development and tighten coding. The triad model stripped out middle management and was so successful it’s been rolled into the Server and Tools division and his old home of Office.” (The Register, 13 November)

“Sinofsky, a 23-year Microsoft veteran, built up a walled empire around his Windows unit. His hard-charging but methodical style, which took on the name “Sinofskyization,” alienated other groups in the company, especially the Office unit, the other financial pillar of Microsoft’s success. “Steven is a brilliant guy who made tremendous contributions to Microsoft,” said Silverberg. “But he was also a polarizing guy and the antibodies ultimately caught up with him.” The decision not to share the latest internal test versions of Windows 8 and keep the Surface tablet a secret until just before its announcement especially upset the Office group, which insiders say accounts for the lack of a fully featured Office suite on the Surface RT tablet. “All good leaders create friction, but my guess is the cost of doing business with Sinofsky ended up outweighing the benefits,” said a former Microsoft staffer who saw Sinofsky operate at close quarters.(South China Morning Post, 16 November)

This double tap is seen by many as a big shift in the workplace. Or is it evidence of a sea-change that’s been brewing for a while?

Today, the message is out: teamwork and collaboration in cross functional teams is more important than individual power players pushing too hard to get what they want at the expense of the greater organisation. Hard-driving, ball-busting, progress-at-any-cost style of management is clearly no longer seen as appropriate. I grew up thinking that was an important part of being a senior manager which was pretty demoralising if that wasn’t one’s natural style.

Perhaps what we see here is a combination of factors at play?

  • The economics of collaboration and teamwork is more profitable in environments that demand creativity from their staff, and staff demand purpose, operational clarity and a voice in return.
  • The rise of social media and a culture of growing transparency is shining a bright light on management practices where internal politicians can no longer rely on misinformation and secrecy to build power bases within organisations.
  • More successful leaders – men and women – in highly nuanced, global leadership positions is highlighting the importance of emotional intelligence in top jobs.

I remember reading an article about the acclaimed film director Oliver Stone in which it described how he used to deliberately manufacture tense, conflicted situations on a film set. The effect of which was to make his actors uncomfortable and on edge. This creative dissonance would result in very authentic performances. Oliver Stone isn’t the first or last to use conflict to break out of a mediocre performance.

So, what’s to become of the prickly, demanding senior exec in the corner office? Is shouting the loudest still an appropriate motivational tool? Perhaps this recent reshuffling just draws attention to the fine line between challenging a dynamic, high-performance team to do better and simply being hard to work with.

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