November 2001

Managers don't like surprises. Managers like to make plans and have those plans etched in stone. Then they don't have to think or react; they just follow the script that they have written.

There are many kinds of surprises that bother managers. A new hire who happens to have a severe character flaw or a lower talent level than expected is one such example. Another is a budget cut. Yet another bad surprise would be a to find out that a fundamental assumption upon which a project is built turns out to be baseless and empty.

There is almost no such thing as a "good surprise" for a certain kind of manager. If the new hire turns out to be an unpolished but hard-working genius, the self-important type of manager will not recognize it as a surprise; he or she will simply think, "Of course, I'm a super judge of talent, so how could it have turned out any other way?" A sudden budget increase will cause this class of manager to say, "Of course, we deserve that." And the baseless assumption is simply just blamed on a subordinate.

Pity, then, that today's information managers fail to recognize the "pot luck" they settle for every time they re-up for another round of Windows. The very same type of manager whose self-centered viewpoint is risk-wary is also the ideal target for the sly, smarmy, slick promotional ploys of Microsoft.

I find it strange that there are so few "good surprises" in Windows. I cannot recall a case where the users found that the latest version of Windows was compatible with MORE software than they expected, only less. "Hey, our current version of Design Whiz for Windoze doesn't work any more. Now we'll have to go out and buy everyone the latest version!" I've never heard of an office full of people saying, "Hey, you know those programs that we wanted to use two years ago, but they didn't run on our old version of Windoze? Guess what, they run on the new version! Now we can save some money by not having to buy new versions of everything!!"

I have never heard of a manager who looked back at the last four or five years' worth of expenses and said, "Well, gee, that Windoze sure saved us a lot of money. We ended up being able to spend less on hardware, less on applications, and a WHOLE LOT LESS ON SUPPORT!" No, it has always been the case that costs went up, if not by direct demand from Microsoft through surprise changes in license contracts, then through surprise bugs, surprise incompatibilities, and surprise data loss. It has gotten to the point where the only surprise would be if there were no nasty surprises.

The workers themselves have had their share of harmful surprises. Having to re-learn a favorite set of keystrokes, or a well-practiced file-save routine, or even a baffling new set of screen configurations -- yes, that is the kind of counterproductive, counterintuitive surprise that makes Windoze the infamously fickle product that it is. Having to buy a new printer, or change video resolutions, or e-mail a file home because the latest version of Office can't read it -- well, surprise surprise! Welcome to Windoze!

Yes, the basic assumption that information systems decision-makers rely upon is the fallacy that Windows will make their jobs easier. In fact, quite the opposite is true; Windows will make them have many sleepless nights and numerous mind-numbing hours of incoherent babbling and excuse-making. Almost nobody has ever gotten a great reputation from working in a Windows-based IT department. As a longtime acquaintance told me about his workplace last week, "IT? They're the most hated people in the whole company!"

Surprise! His company's IT Department was just voted as one of the Top Twenty in the nation!

If Windows was a new hire, he would fail every employee review. He would be branded as having poor attendance, lousy expense reports, poor customer relations, and no talent. Hiding behind that slick Armani suit was the software equivalent of a drunken bum. He would be fired after just a few weeks. "Don't let the lid hit you on the backside as you fall into the dustbin of history."

Meanwhile, OS/2 Warp would be the new hire who quietly gets the job done, who never complains, whose expense report is immaculate and who goes out of his way to get along with everyone else. A toothy grin and a modest appearance, perhaps, but his performance would more than make up for any lack of charm.

The sad fact is this: Many managers would rather die from a thousand small cuts, a hundred nasty little surprises, than to make a single decision that appears to be a risk. As a former NASA manager once told me, "None of us is being paid enough to take risks." Which was, of course, backwards. Only a person who is paid as much as he was would be so allergic to the topic of risk. It was the regular people with the regular salaries who had to make things work who were not afraid to call it like they saw it. It was the cushy positions and the high salaries of the top executives that kept them fearfully locked-in to the dead-end cycle of the least conspicuous choice.

Mediocrity rushes in where managers fear to lead. And Microsoft is only too happy to disguise "change" as "leadership."

Most recent revision: October 28, 2001
Copyright © 2001, Tom Nadeau
All Rights Reserved.