Two unrelated posts have me thinking how generational cohorts impact the Innovators Dilemma. The first one is the Jay Greene posts on how Microsoft killed the Courier. Unable to decide if Microsoft should disrupt itself with a new non-standard Windows version of the tablet or wait until the Windows group could finish making the main Win OS tablet ready. Balmer calls in Bill Gates to help him choose. (The fact that Balmer could not make this choice himself and had to run to Bill for a decision is all the evidence you need that Balmer has no business being the CEO of a company like Microsoft). Gates seemed concerned about what he felt was a critical flaw in the Courier teams approach to the product:
Courier users wouldn’t want or need a feature-rich e-mail application such as Microsoft’s Outlook that lets them switch to conversation views in their inbox or support offline e-mail reading and writing. The key to Courier, Allard’s team argued, was its focus on content creation. Courier was for the creative set, a gadget on which architects might begin to sketch building plans, or writers might begin to draft documents.
“This is where Bill had an allergic reaction,” said one Courier worker who talked with an attendee of the meeting. As is his style in product reviews, Gates pressed Allard, challenging the logic of the approach.
It’s not hard to understand Gates’ response. Microsoft makes billions of dollars every year on its Exchange e-mail server software and its Outlook e-mail application. While heated debates are common in Microsoft’s development process, Gates’ concerns didn’t bode well for Courier. He conveyed his opinions to Ballmer, who was gathering data from others at the company as well.
I actually dont think Gates reaction was because he was concerned about Exchange email server revenue. Although I dont know Gates personally, I am pretty sure he understands the Innovators Dilemma as well as any executive and as such understands that for Microsoft to maintain relevancy, it will need to release new products that undermine its existing products. I think it is instructive that Gates was hung up on email. I think he saw that as a crippling the acceptance of the device in companies (and this was to be more a workers tablet, not just a consumers tablet like the iPad). And that brings me to the second post, on generational cohorts.
At orgtheory.net there is a post on cohort replacement and institutional change. It argues that change occurs not because people change their views or work habits but because different generations have different views and work habits and as one generation passes and is replaced by a newer generation, the way things are done changes. And this I think is the key to Gates failure on the Courier.
For Gates generation, a heavy email client was the critical nexus on the work computer. It tied it all together. Email was used for quick messaging, for calendaring meetings, for organizing project workflow in the production of project artifacts, as a repository for those project artifacts and finally, as the means and record of communication outside the organization or company. For Gates, for a device to not have a heavy email client means you can not use the device to work. And if the Courier team could not understand that, then they did not understand the product they were trying to build.
The problem is that for the younger generation of workers, heavy email clients are not needed. Part of this is do to a fundamental change in the way technical teams work. In Gates day, and still to this day on the Microsoft Redmond campus, programmers worked in offices alone or with one other person. In process work was done in long email threads, meetings were scheduled and held for critical decisions and large project spec documents were approved and signed off on. In today’s lean environment (and the Courier team worked in a lean environment in Pioneer Square, not on the Redmond campus), teams work in large open rooms, workflow is managed face to face, documentation is minimized, meetings are impromptu.
For the newer generation of workers, social media and texting has replaced the quick messaging feature of email. Project workflow is organized on wikis or CRM’s or even walls with sticky notes. Project artifacts are minimized and stored on wikis. Impromptu meetings require much less scheduling. The one aspect of the old email system still used is external communication. However, if that is all your are using email for, you dont need a heavy client, a web client will work fine.
Gates got it wrong, the lack of a heavy email client would not have crippled the Courier as a work machine. It may have limited its acceptance to the younger worker force and more agile work places but that is what innovative products do. They change the way the new people work and as the new people become the majority, they change the way business is done.