Happy Birthday Microsoft. Although maybe 23 August is the date to celebrate Microsoft’s Re-Birth Day. That was the day CEO Steve Ballmer announced his resignation. Ballmer had an indelible part in writing Microsoft’s history which I have shared my own perspectives on in this blog. But it was his decision to step aside which changed the course of the company. And from most perspectives, for the better.
The Wall Street Journal analysed his decision in their piece “Microsoft’s CEO explained how he came to believe he wasn’t the best person to remake the company” which revealed his generously humble dose of embracing failure…
- “Mr. Ballmer says he started to realize he had trained managers to see the trees, not the forest, and that many weren’t going to take his new mandates to heart. In May, he began wondering whether he could meet the pace the board demanded. ‘No matter how fast I want to change, there will be some hesitation from all constituents—employees, directors, investors, partners, vendors, customers, you name it—to believe I’m serious about it, maybe even myself,’ he says. His personal turning point came on a London street. Winding down from a run one morning during a May trip, he had a few minutes to stroll, some rare spare time for recent months. For the first time, he began thinking Microsoft might change faster without him. ‘At the end of the day, we need to break a pattern,’ he says. ‘Face it: I’m a pattern.’ Mr. Ballmer says he secretly began drafting retirement letters—ultimately some 40 of them, ranging from maudlin to radical. On a plane from Europe in late May, he told Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith that it ‘might be the time for me to go.’… ‘While I would like to stay here a few more years, it doesn’t make sense for me to start the transformation and for someone else to come in during the middle.’ The board wasn’t "surprised or shocked," says Mr. Noski, given directors’ conversations with Mr. Ballmer. Mr. Thompson says he and others indicated that ‘fresh eyes and ears might accelerate what we’re trying to do here.’"
Nobody is perfect. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. A while back, I stepped down as Chairperson of a charity I had run very successfully for a number of years. I did so for the same reason why it was time for me to leave Microsoft’s Server Business Division that I had run for 5 years. Both had become very “Bruceified”. I had done all the things that I knew how to do to make a team great. Those were a lot of things and they made the team very strong. But, for starters, once done, my ability and value to make further progress was limited. And second, there were plenty of things that were not ideal and were not my forte to fix.
And after more than three decades of Steve Ballmer at the top (or near penultimate top) of the Microsoft organisation, it too had become very “Ballmerfied”. His focus on the enterprise brought Microsoft many revenues from the lucrative business market, but the surging consumer market was less familiar. His focus on high energy determination anchored Microsoft in the heady days of fast paced growth, but was less effective in the era of a mature market and a more complex organisation.
Since Ballmer’s resignation, Microsoft stock has risen appreciably with investors returning the embrace of this embrace of failure.
If you’ve been embarrassingly caught out by an April Fools prank, you might want to share your story with the “Talk of Shame” podcast. Or at least have a commiserating listen to one of their 49 episodes which has people sharing their most mortifying failures. Though if you are looking for a bit of schadenfreude consolation, you might enjoy #39 with Chris ‘Shockwave’ Sullivan, beatboxer and host of Shock and Awesome, who shares the tale of a prank gone wrong.
For every artificial decal in Lamm’s kit, there are inspiring real stories of people embracing their physical distinctions. I collected a few of my favourites here…
- Birthmark – “This Guy Is Transforming His Birthmark Into A Map Of An Imaginary World” (see photo above): “A 25-year-old New York-based college student is transforming a birthmark that covers a majority of his arm into a map of an imaginary world with just a pen. The student, named Jacob, posted the images of what he calls his ‘birthmap’ onto Reddit, and they quickly spread across the web. Jacob told BuzzFeed News he has been doodling on his hand for as long as he can remember, but began seeing his birthmark as a map in high school. He said to draw the full map takes an hour and a half or more. He says it took time, but he’s learned to accept his birthmark. ‘I felt pride that the marks that distinguish my skin were not chosen, but the result of quirky genetic mutations and so far more meaningful to me,’ he said. His birthmark has also taught him to not rush to judgment. ‘I think of it as my own private lens by which to see a world filled with people with differences, visible or invisible, that they think alienates them from everyone else.’…For those with birthmarks like his, Jacob says he has a simple message: ‘Your birthmark doesn’t define you any more than you let it,’ he said.”
- Body Hair – “This Bearded Bride Will Challenge How You Think About Beauty” (see photo below): “Kaur has Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, an endocrine system disorder that can cause major hormonal imbalances. For Kaur, it caused her to start sprouting facial hair when she was just 11. ‘I used to have my face waxed two to three times a week,’ she told the blog Rock N Roll Bride, ‘and on the days I couldn’t bare the pain I would simply shave.’ Despite growing up in a supportive home, she admits that she often resorted to self-harm. At 16, though, Kaur says she radically shifted the way she thought about herself. “I told myself, ‘The energy you are putting into ending your life, put all that energy into turning your life around and doing something better.’” The Slough, U.K.-based Kaur decided to embrace her beard. “I have now fallen in love with the elements on my body that people may call ‘flaws.’” “I love my beard, my stretch marks, and my scars,’ she told Rock N Roll Bride. ‘These elements make me who I am, they make me whole, they make me complete.” (Featured on Urban Bridesmaid, and tapped Kaur to model in a new feature on the site)
- Vitiligo – “A Woman Got This Bold Tattoo To Stop People Staring At Her Skin Condition” (see photo at bottom): “’I wanted to share with people what it is because that way they would learn something, rather than stigmatising.’ She hopes that the tattoo helps answer the question many people have in their heads about her skin. Now people are like, ‘I love your tattoo.’ They ask questions about the condition and go away enlightened. They know I didn’t get burnt in a fire. They know there’s a term for what I have. It’s very liberating.’ Posteraro says that an encounter with a woman with vitiligo – as well as finding out about the model Winnie Harlow, who also has the condition – inspired her to be proud of her skin.”
- Stretch Marks – “Women Openly Share Why They Love Their Stretch Marks”: “My stretch marks remind me of how much stronger I’ve gotten…I smile because they remind me of my first pregnancy and having my first daughter….It’s a fun fact about me…They’re mine and it shows that I’ve grown up.”
“The ‘imperfect’ nature of it isn’t an issue. I feel it makes the doll more relatable.” – Nickolay Lamm
Barbie Day today (curiously the day after International Womens Day). But even Mattel is making strides in a more sympathetic treatment of its franchise product. They recently introduced a new line of Barbie dolls with a range of skin tones and body types to more accurately represent the diversity and reality of women’s physiques.
And if those options still don’t depict the many flaws which make us human and distinctive, then designer Nickolay Lamm has created “Lammily” which not only is cast in an “average” female body type, but also comes with stickers to make them more “life”-like…
- “The stickers, which include tattoos, cellulite, and stretch marks, can be placed anywhere on the doll’s body. Lamm hopes they show that a variety of body types are natural and beautiful. Since playing in the dirt, getting bruises, or developing stretch marks during puberty or growth spurts are normal parts of many girls’ lives, Lamm wanted to make dolls that would represent those experiences. The other options for stickers are freckles, glasses, blushing, adhesive bandages, moles, temporary tattoos, stitches, scrapes & scratches, bruises, casts, scars, mosquito bites, and grass and dirt stains.”
And if you want to make your Barbie a bit more realistic, Lamm sell the stickers separately on his website.
- “They reduce the complex emotional experience of being heckled by catcalls to a simple piece of women’s work.”
International Womens Day today and a chance to take stock of the many advancements toward gender equality the world has made, as well as to embrace the failures that remain so we can learn and improve.
Some of the most persistent forces of disparagement are the simple gestures in comments made in the vulnerable environment of the public streets. Buzzfeed featured an inspiring piece about artist Elana Adler who embraced her abuse and by doing so belittled it and neutralised its impact. “14 Cross-Stitches Of Catcalls One Woman Received In The Street” describes…
- “The project started out as a collection of things people would holler at me. I get cat called all of the time, most women do. Once I started getting more interesting catcalls, I started texting them to myself and thus the collection began. At first I wasn’t sure what to do with them. I started cross-stitching them. I wanted to laboriously and painstakingly give attention to all this phrases that were verbally thrown at me in a moment. You read one sampler. Perhaps you are amused, but as you continue reading and consider the body as an entire collection, the response changes…Then, the filth emerges. It is a beautification of an assault.”
It’s books like this that give failure a bad name.
Failing about failure is not success. And Anjali Sastry and Kara Penn’s book “Design Smart Mistakes and Succeed Sooner” is a complete failure…but not in a good way.
As you can imagine, I have a pretty low bar for any book on failure. I embrace anything with a hint of insight into the subject. You can imagine my disappointment as I ploughed through pages upon pages of vapid, buzzword-laden, repetitive, tick-box dross. L
Their paint-by-numbers checklist at the back of each chapter is antithetical to very notion of embracing failure. And when you read their contrived templates, it is not a step-by-step guide of “how to fail successfully”, but rather “how to succeed by sprinkling some failure decoration on top”.
For example, in its chapter “Practical Fail-to-Succeed Lessons from a Frugal Innovator” is recounts the case study of BRAC, a development/aid organisation in Bangladesh. It is a touching story of a challenging part of the world facing major issues. The only problem is that the story wasn’t about “failure”. It was purely and simply a “success story.”
And that was the core problem with most of the book, much as it tried to dress itself up in the trapping of the embrace-failure hype, it is still a turn-the-crank, generic success-for-dummies how-to guide.
“Gales of creative destruction” – Schumpeter
World Book Day today. And I have no shortage of books on failure. They are a regular gift item and recommendation from friends and fans of this blog. One I enjoyed that I recently finished is Paul Ormond’s “Why Most Things Fail”. It’s less about the dynamics or process of embracing failure and more about the imperative of embracing failure. Here are a few of my favourite excerpts…
- “Failure is all around us. Failure is pervasive. Failure is everywhere, across time, across place and across different aspects of life. 99.99% of all biological species which have ever existed are now extinct…More than 10% of all companies in America disappear each year…From biological species to companies to government policies, there appears to be an Iron Law of Failure which is extremely difficult to break.”