Structural disincentives and Innovation

This is not a blog about business administration but after reading an article about the demise of Microsoft and the Stack Rating system, I needed to vent. This is the most horrible and destructive staff system I’ve ever heard of (this side of an actual whip).

The use of stack ranking actually creates a structural disincentive to be creative and nurturing a team spirit. It might be rather good for created fear and paranoia. But these are going to help innovation.

Kurt Eichenwald at Vanity Fair explains stack ranking:

At the center of the cultural problems was a management system called “stack ranking.” Every current and former Microsoft employee I interviewed—every one—cited stack ranking as the most destructive process inside of Microsoft, something that drove out untold numbers of employees. The system—also referred to as “the performance model,” “the bell curve,” or just “the employee review”—has, with certain variations over the years, worked like this: every unit was forced to declare a certain percentage of employees as top performers, then good performers, then average, then below average, then poor. …

For that reason, executives said, a lot of Microsoft superstars did everything they could to avoid working alongside other top-notch developers, out of fear that they would be hurt in the rankings. And the reviews had real-world consequences: those at the top received bonuses and promotions; those at the bottom usually received no cash or were shown the door. …

“The behavior this engenders, people do everything they can to stay out of the bottom bucket,” one Microsoft engineer said. “People responsible for features will openly sabotage other people’s efforts. One of the most valuable things I learned was to give the appearance of being courteous while withholding just enough information from colleagues to ensure they didn’t get ahead of me on the rankings.” Worse, because the reviews came every six months, employees and their supervisors—who were also ranked—focused on their short-term performance, rather than on longer efforts to innovate. …

Slate Magazine sums it up nicely: So while Google was encouraging its employees to spend 20 percent of their time to work on ideas that excited them personally, Ballmer was inadvertently encouraging his to spend a good chunk of their time playing office politics. Why try to outrun the bear when you can just tie your co-workers’ shoelaces?

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