079. Competing Designs, Better Design
“Ugh, competing teams are the worst.” — my own thought bubble, 2003
A common belief in big companies with resources to spare is that innovation works better when there is a competition between multiple efforts with the same goal. It is a luxury most companies don’t have. If you’ve lived through competing designs, then you also know this is a horrible way to innovate and it is odd that such a process persists. When we began work on the redesign of Office, we wanted to iterate over designs quickly while also making sure we had multiple perspectives. It was not competing designs per se, but it had many of the same tensions. It was only through careful management that we ended up with a better design because we had multiple efforts early on.
Microsoft always maintained a competitive culture. It started at the top and flowed down from there. Any doubts, ask one of the early morning basketball leaguers who played against SteveB.
Generally, one place we did not compete was on products. That was wasteful. To be sure, cookie-licking had a way of making it seem like there was competition, but those involved knew the reality. We’d seen IBM intentionally set groups after each other and it was ugly. Back when I was technical assistant, I had a call with an IBM technical assistant (a very different job it turns out) who asked me about how the company managed competing groups “so effectively” he said, and I thought he was speaking a foreign language (later I would realize from his view he thought of OS/2 and Windows as competitive, but we didn’t quite see it that way).
While competition rarely occurred across groups by building the products that were addressing the same goal, at times it happened accidentally, such as when C# and .NET evolved to bump up against Visual Basic, or even NetDocs taking on email after starting from a word processor. There were also technology transitions resulting in a current and forward-looking product, such as Windows 95 and Windows NT, which was not resolved until Windows XP. Originally Windows NT was a server operating system, but over time it became abundantly clear it was the future general-purpose operating system.
The Windows competition was painful. It was not particularly secret, but once NT went from a side project to a real product and then to the strategy it is fair to say the competition was difficult on all involved. No one who went through that would ever think about having competitive groups on purpose. At least if we did, we gained lessons in how we might go about it. The resolution of this situation was painful for everyone.
Microsoft’s culture was to avoid being wasteful of resources or internal energy, and to focus on one solution, getting to market, and iterating to get something right (in three versions or so). As we’ve seen when confronted with intentional redundancy, we typically dealt with it before products got to market. If there was a competition, shipping first was one way to fix it.
Many companies, like IBM, famously maintained cultures of competition. Often these companies sent two or more groups off to build solutions to a specified problem, frequently unbeknownst to each other, hoping a clearly superior solution emerged. For an engineer, that was an immensely frustrating approach and rarely resulted in a clean win. Executives had a way of looking at competing projects and determining that the best path forward was to remove the negative attributes from both choices and use the good from each. That forced merger of two formerly competing groups usually marked the start of a long, friction-filled journey to market. Worse, tell me the boss of the new merged effort and I could tell you the winning technology. Such was another reason to dislike that approach (incidentally, one thing we got right with the Windows 9x/Windows NT era was in moving code from one to the other).
The task of redesigning Office to address the challenges described was so high risk and difficult that it seemed sensible to try a few different approaches despite the difficulties of doing so. The questions were how to quickly try multiple designs and if one team could sincerely experiment in an unbiased manner.
The user interface was one part of Office12. The next section will outline the full scope of the release.