A couple of words about Meg…

Posted by on May 25, 2012

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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.