Open Letter to John Thompson

October 19, 2013

John Thompson
Chairman of the CEO Search Committee
Microsoft Board of Directors

 Dear John,

Since you are leading the charge to find Steve’s replacement, I thought a few thoughts might be useful, particularly because the obvious choice, Jony Ive, is likely unavailable.

You may not find it obvious that Sir Ive is the best choice to lead Microsoft. After all, you might say, he hasn’t been CEO of anything, much less one of the most complex organizations on the planet, and he doesn’t even like to speak in public.

The reason is that he is a product guy. Not just any kind of product guy, but the kind Microsoft needs for the next decade.

To see why takes a bit of context. As you know well, businesses are built by people. For this analysis we will split out those that are “product people.” Product people are found throughout an organization, and fall into three broad categories: Systems, User Experience, and Value. I’m going to use “S-type,” “UX-type,” and “V-type” to refer to these three kinds of product people. (Of course I’ve turned the contrast knob up high; every product person and every organization actually has some blend of these characteristics.)

Microsoft built an incredible business around S-type (system) product people. S-types are all about organizing complexity and extracting capability. Their products enable their users to do new things and to do them better.

Once technology matures, and a general consensus on capability is achieved, the S-type product people tend to keep adding capabilities and extending the reach of the products. The resulting products get increasingly complex and bloated, ripe for disruption.

That disruption often occurs along two axes: the V-type (value) product people create products that broaden access to the consensus capabilities. Dell and Samsung are both examples. The UX-type (user experience) product people go a different direction: they focus on – and I’m using the word deliberately – delighting the user. Complexity is enlisted to support this goal, not the other way around.

Microsoft’s products, while uniformly impressive in scope and ambition, have become inelegant, bloated compromises. I’m sure you read Ram Charan’s article discussing the non-negotiable criteria you need to employ for a new CEO. At the top of that list should be an ability to change Microsoft’s product culture from S-type to UX-type.

This won’t be easy. Few companies have a product culture as embedded as that of Microsoft, but then again, few companies were founded by the world’s most accomplished S-type product person.

Jony Ive is already as accomplished a UX-type product person as Bill was an S-type. As CEO of Microsoft, he would change the product culture in the direction it must, it absolutely must, go. No experienced business executive, no matter how capable and inspired, can do it, unless they share Ive’s laser focus on user delight. And don't expect that this cultural change will occur except from the top; 13 years of Ballmer hires has proven that.

I started by doubting Jony Ive is available. I will close by suggesting that despite that, what he could provide is what you must seek.

Warm regards,

Larry Zulch