On numerous occasions, Ben Thompson has made the point, “The more wedded we are to an idea, the harder it is to see the next thing.”
In 2012, then CEO of Microsoft Steve Ballmer said, “There’s nothing at Microsoft that’s more important than Windows.” In 2018, current CEO of Microsoft Satya Nadella wrote, “we can’t let any organizational boundaries get in the way of innovation for our customers,” as he announced how the company would divide up the Windows engineering team to place greater focus on cloud other non-Windows projects.
Ballmer loved devices and saw Windows as the ultimate draw to the company, while Nadella realized they would have to add more emphasis on user experiences and leverage the operations behind those experiences (ex. Cloud). CEO success is a funny thing to measure, and without hindsight, we won’t really know how successful or not Nadella is until years into the future, but we can still point at the value and necessity of seeing the next thing.
Ballmer may have turned Windows and Office into profit machines, but did little to truly innovate. While Microsoft had been early to tablets and smartphones, the plug (and funding) was pulled when too much money was perceived to have been taken away from the old cash cows. Defending the old things can be very profitable for a time, but it will never secure one’s place in the future. A balance is always required.
No matter where we sit in our organizations we should remember that our ability to see “the next thing” is incumbent on our ability to let go of current beliefs and understandings. Every company has their equivalent Courier and Zune – the new ideas that got dwarfed by the old ones, never getting a proper chance to develop. While we don’t want to just chase the new-new thing, we always want to be testing our own adaptability by experimenting with new ideas.
Our customers, our people, our competitors – they know stuff. We can’t get married to ideas if we also want to find the next thing. Learn from Ballmer and Nadella. Look through windows, not just at them.