A couple of words about Meg…

And now we're down to two
Predicting the conference finals..

HP’s Meg Whitman is cautiously optimistic that tech giant is stabilizing | VentureBeat:

Hewlett-Packard chief executive Meg Whitman said in a conference call with analysts that she is “cautiously optimistic” that the company’s financial results are stabilizing.

“We are creating the process to adapt to innovation and product leadership,” Whitman said. HP will take a $1.8 billion charge and it will reduce its work force by 27,000 jobs by October 2014. That will save $3 billion to $3.5 billion by the end of October 2014.

Since I’ve opened my big mouth about this, a couple of quick words on Meg and HP, spoken as one of the earlier rats off of the sinking ship called webOS…

I am not predisposed to be a fan of Meg. Just putting that out up front. But since she’s taken over HP, she has impressed me with her willingness to dig in to find the right answers, and her willingness to make hard decisions and tough investments to make things work.

That said, the first email I got the day HP bought Palm was from an old Apple friend who had moved on to HP. And he wrote me and said “get the hell out before this place eats your brain”.

He was right (he since has left HP, also). HP tried very hard to keep itself from engulfing webOS and Palm, and succeeded as well as they could, but interactions with the mother ship were inevitable, and when they happened, it was almost scary how interactions there went.

In one of my attempts to get the forums upgraded for the developer portal (remember that initiative? sigh), I had a meeting with the team in charge of web forums and community tools for HP, to explore options with them. It went something like this: “Here’s the tool you’ll use. Here’s how you’ll use it. We’re a busy team, so we’ll find a place on our calendar and then tell you when you’ll be allowed to migrate. Here are our usage processes. And you’ll love every minute of it”.

I tried three different times to shift the discussion into, well, actually talking about my needs and requirements and it was made clear that was irrelevant, that at HP, you did it the HP way and that was that.

I left that meeting, went back to my management, and said “we can’t let them get anywhere close to us. The forum upgrade is on hold until we can figure out how to hide from them”, and stopped returning phone calls.

THAT is the reality Meg is having to fight right now. AT HP, there’s a culture of innovation — if you fill out the project plan in triplicate in advance, it’s approved by the global council of plan evaluation, and there’s a 100% chance of success before you even start, and it doesn’t violate any of the 37 volumes of rules and processes along the way that define “the HP way”.

Back in the bad old days at Apple (the Spindler/Amelio era), there were chunks of Apple that took the “here’s how we’re doing business, we outlived the last two CEOs, so we’ll just ignore you until they fire you, too” attitude. It wasn’t until Steve came back and started putting heads on pikes outside of infinite loop that he broke that “what’s good for my group is more important than what’s good for the company” attitude in some parts of the company.

HP has an even bigger problem — no only is that kind of “protecting my turf” going on, but the company is so damn huge that inertia and process overrules everything. It feels like you’re diving for oysters from an aircraft carrier. For Meg to turn HP around, she not only has to find and root out the fiefdoms of “this is my place, and you’ll do it to my convenience”, but she has to figure out ways to give HP flexibility in process and operations so it can try new things. What I found was that every time I dealt with the “mother ship” part of HP, everything shoved you back into “this is how we do things”, and any time you wanted to do something that wasn’t a 100% fit with the process, all energy expended went towards putting you back into the process. So either you did it “the HP way” (i.e., whatever was easiest for whatever team you were dealing with), or you went rogue and did things more or less under the cover of darkness (like, say, hosting your developer portal at an external colo instead of with the HP IT teams…)

It’s a hell of a way to run a business. Fixing it will be tough, and I wish her luck. She’ll need it (and a ruthless attitude, a few public executions to shake up the fiefdoms, and some pikes installed in front of corporate headquarters for the heads). I think the problems are similar to the ones Carol Bartz ran into at Yahoo, and Yahoo won. I don’t think the fight at HP will be any easier.

Me? I’m just glad I got out of there with my brain intact (mostly). But as it stands, the words “HP” and “innovation” are fundamentally incompatible, because the company that HP has evolved into is like that aircraft carrier; very good for some things, but nimble navigation is not one of them. And that’s the core problem Meg has to figure out — if she chan.

 

This entry was posted in Computers and Technology, Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area, The Internet and tagged , , .
  • c alexander

    HP strikes me as another tragic story of what happens when people attempt to deliberately engineer a corporate culture according to their organizational preference (see Gideon Kunda’s Engineering Culture). The HP way was once synonymous with a decentralized, competitive, and individualistic way of working. Now, the irony is that in repeatedly attempting to break down any signs of hierarchy (and groups) in pursuit of their ideal organizational design/culture, they ended up with a completely dysfunctional culture that undermines their organizational goals (what exactly is going on in HP in terms of organizational dynamics is still subject to debate, I think, and requires closer inspection). What I did notice in reading Kunda’s ethnographic account of HP is that you could already see the signs of HP’s painful downward spiral in descriptions about “endless meetings” and top members being at “each other’s throats.” You also see what consultants refer to as a “silo effect,” where groups within the company fight each other, and tragically, a complete disintegration of trust, without which collaboration between both groups and individuals is impossible. Interestingly, Woolcock and Szreter talk about different kinds of trust (bridging, linking, and bonding) and all of these, as Cultural Theorist Michael Thompson would tell you, are necessary for a corporation’s success (each form of trust supports a distinct organizational form; respectively, individualism, hierarchy, and egalitarianism). 

    I would go a step further to say that ANY corporation that takes a position where they attempt to control/suppress all sub-cultures within their corporation and implement a single ideal culture is likely to fail. Both in terms of actually being able to control their employees behaviors and creating profitable products and services. The idea is that each organizational form has distinct functional advantages and drawbacks; moreover, each latches onto different sorts of problems (accounting issues, fair pay distribution, whether a product meets customer expectations, etc.) and perceives the organization’s challenges differently. Had HP adopted a little bit of hierarchy earlier, they might have had more direction and better insight into the market. Instead, they stuck in an element of what they perceived was a hierarchical strength– the “no layoff” policy– to offset the weakness of their individualistic, enterprise-based culture (no loyalty). This conflicted with the overall sink-or-swim competitive culture HP promoted and produced a lot of “deadwood,” employees who minded their investments or daydreamed about their yachts during work hours after burning out or ruining their reputations on failed projects (of course now HP is wiser). I don’t know when HP recanted their no layoff policy or the exact timeline of all the different problems plaguing HP, but I would love to hear more insider perspectives. This, by the way, has been an on-going research interest of mine. While I had one very fascinating case study of a large public-private hybrid UK firm that provided supportive evidence, actually proving this hypothesis scientifically would take several years of research and open access to a variety of different organizations– not something I have or am willing to commit to as a PhD student!

  • http://twitter.com/LesAimard Triple Lex

    I have to agree with BobbyBarker, what you encountered was in no way the “HP Way” but the Hurd and Mott way.
    HP had a completely different way of working before Mark Hurd, it was Geek/Engineer Driven. It needed some improvement but instead it was transformed into a Socialist Bureaucracy (Think USSR 1970) 

    • http://www.chuqui.com chuqui

      Hurd was a disaster. Leo was a different disaster. As I said to someone at the time, having lived through both Mike Spindler and Gil Amelio at apple, Leo made life at Apple during those years look good. 

  • BobbyBarker

    So I understand where you’re coming from … but the HP you knew had idiots like Mark Hurd and Randy Mott at the wheel, both of whom cared about nothing but cutting costs and implementing stupid “my way or the highway” policies.  Mott was probably the source of the stupidity you encountered in trying to get changes made to your developer forums – it sounds very much like him.  And then there was Leo “in over my head” Apoteker; the less said about his reign of apathy, the better.  I can definitely say that Whitman and her EVP/acting CIO Hinshaw [Mott’s successor in the CIO role recently moved to a different position] are making smart changes as rapidly as they can, and certain things that have been broken for years are being fixed.   Yes, it’s still an aircraft carrier, and “nimble” is not a term you’re likely to ever use at HP, but things are getting better (well, there IS the matter of 27000 people out the door, but…)

    • http://www.chuqui.com chuqui

      It’s good to hear it’s getting better there. There are a lot of really good people, really intelligent folks, really interesting ideas — all buried in process and inertia. I hope Meg finds a way to dig them out and let them thrive.