Steve Balmer on Efficiency & Decision Making

There is an interview with Steve Balmer in the International Herald Tribune and he makes a statement in response to a question about what’s it like to be in a meeting with him to wit;

I’ve changed that, really, in the last couple years. The mode of Microsoft meetings used to be: You come with something we haven’t seen in a slide deck or presentation. You deliver the presentation. You probably take what I will call ‘‘the long and winding road.’’ You take the listener through your path of discovery and exploration, and you arrive at a conclusion.
That’s kind of the way I used to like to do it, and the way Bill [Gates] used to kind of like to do it. And it seemed like the best way to do it, because if you went to the conclusion first, you’d get: ‘‘What about this? Have you thought about this?’’ So people naturally tried to tell you all the things that supported the decision, and then tell you the decision.
I decided that’s not what I want to do anymore. I don’t think it’s productive. I don’t think it’s efficient. I get impatient.
So most meetings nowadays, you send me the materials and I read them in advance.
And I can come in and say: ‘‘I’ve got the following four questions. Please don’t present the deck.’’ That lets us go, whether they’ve organized it that way or not, to the recommendation. And if I have questions about the long and winding road and the data and the supporting evidence, I can ask them. But it gives us greater focus.

There is a lot of missing information that I wish the interviewer had followed up with but let’s assume a charitable course.

What Mr. Balmer says does not really tell us anything about efficiency,  but speaks volumes about his mind.  He states quite clearly he is impatient and the does not like the “long and winding road”  Most likely this because he does not learn well or efficiently sitting through a presentation.  It could also be that he is intellectually lazy but this seems unlikely.   If he really  is intellectually lazy then most likely Microsoft will perform poorly under his leadership.

Note that he recognizes that Bill Gates took the “long and winding road”.  That should tell you something and if we want to go back in history and look at great  leaders they did too:  Andy Grove, Andrew Carnagie, General  George Patton, General Douglas McArthur to mention a few.  The ability to sit and listen with attention to detail does not mean analysis paralysis, it means understanding the situation properly, the context and the interrelation of it’s elements.  It means avoiding a specious understanding.  Perhaps he is doing this but it is not clear.

He states that he gets the information in advance and let us hope he did not mean in PowerPoint slides.  There are serious limitations to the kinds of information that can be put into slides.  The overwhelming majority of information in a slide deck is distilled and frequently lacking context.  This information must be communicated and explained verbally.  You wouldn’t read the table of contents of a book and draw conclusions.  Yet, if you are reading PowerPoint that is exactly what you are doing.  Its focus is on the presenter,  not on the audience and not on the content.  There is a “sales pitch” aspect to PowerPoint that destroys neutral fact based information.

Now the downside to this interview and its  lack of clarity is right now somewhere in America a mediocre manager who prides himself on efficiency  is out there somewhere instructing his subordinates to send him a slide deck in advance and he’s drawing up his four questions because Balmer uses PowerPoint in advance and four questions.

Finally, we will never really know if it is more efficient.  If he had recorded all of his decisions under the ‘ “long and winding road” ‘ method and then recorded all his decisions under the “efficient” method we may have learned what works best for Balmer.  We will certainly never learn what works best for everyone else, unless they start recording their own decisions.

note: updated for typo

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