Microsoft’s mammoth memo shows how not to define your mission

To put a computer on every desk and in every home.

It took Bill Gates 11 words to articulate Microsoft’s original mission.

Late last week, Satya Nadella, the company’s new CEO, released a public memo to staff.

In over 3,100 words, he struggled to articulate his vision for Microsoft. Extracted from the long and plodding document, the company’s new mission statement flops in at a hefty 36-words:

Microsoft is the productivity and platform company for the mobile-first and cloud-first world.

We will re-invent productivity to empower every person and every organisation on the planet to do more and achieve more.

‘Culture change’

Among all the other platitudes and broad statements, it’s hardly inspiring. The obvious conclusion for outsiders and, most importantly customers, is that Microsoft doesn’t know what it’s trying to achieve anymore and hasn’t for quite some time.

Despite many references to “passion” and “boldness”, the memo reads like a Burroughs-style cut-up of previous Microsoft press releases.

Nadella writes: “We will increase the fluidity of information and ideas by taking actions to flatten the organisation and develop leaner business processes. Culture change means we will do things differently.” And there we all were thinking culture change meant staying exactly the same and tweaking the logo a little bit.

His bland and often cryptic language barely hides a harsh future of job losses:

Organisations will change. Mergers and acquisitions will occur…

Less is more

You could argue that making the memo public is an excellent example of openness from Microsoft but the opaque quality of the language undoes that. Writing a lot of words doesn’t mean you’re saying much.

The communique pleased analysts and the markets with hints of belt-tightening but will frighten staff and stupefy the small number of consumers who read it. Microsoft is struggling with storytelling because with so many departments and projects, it doesn’t even know what its story is to begin with.

Putting forward a goal that your customers can understand is a good start.

Microsoft’s three biggest rivals all do that. Apple hasn’t released a official “mission statement” but consistently tells a story about quality and design. Google’s is simply put: “Google’s mission is to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” How much it has strayed from that vision is a debate for another time. Amazon says its mission is “to be Earth’s most customer-centric company”.

‘You’re not just a consumer’

In an interview with The Verge, Nadella sounded far more human:

…any thinking consumer should consider Microsoft because, guess what, you’re not just a consumer. You’re also going to work, you’re also going to be productive and we can do a better job for you in there.

That single line says more about where he sees Microsoft going in the future than his 3000-word plus memo. There’s a temptation to sprinkle “business” language into communications to appear more weighty but the result is airless and inhuman.

Nadella’s memo also includes quotes from Nietzsche, Wilde and Rilke but he would have been better off going back to Gates’s 11 words for inspiration.

It’s not what Gates said but how he said it that should inspire his latest successor. If you can’t articulate where you’re headed in a sentence there’s a good chance you’re not looking in the right direction.