Did the cancellation of Microsoft Courier demotivate 200 employees?

Predictably Irrational” is one of my favorite non-fiction books and it’s author Dan Ariely, an esteemed behavioral economist, recently gave a TEDx presentation about the motivations of work beyond just money. Although the presentation itself holds a lot of merit, I want to draw attention to his interesting story of an unnamed “big software company in Seattle”.

Due to the timing, location and scale of the operation described, I believe the story to be of the infamous Microsoft “Courier” skunkworks project which was officially confirmed and cancelled in 2010.

According to Dan, he visited the team a week after the CEO, presumably Steve Ballmer, cancelled the project and shared this behind-the-scenes insight of that team’s dampened spirits.

The story starts at 7min46sec into the video (embedded below for your convinience)

…I went to talk to a big software company in Seattle. I can’t tell you who they were, but they were a big company in Seattle. And this was a group within this software company that was put in a different building. And they asked them to innovate and create the next big product for this company. And the week before I showed up, the CEO of this big software company went to that group, 200 engineers, and canceled the project. And I stood there in front of 200 of the most depressed people I’ve ever talked to.

If the project was indeed the Courier, then the abrupt cancellation appears to have had a huge impact on the team of 200 that is claimed to have worked on the project. Employees later showed up to work later, went home earlier and even splurged more at the company’s expense.

Of course Dan also has some informal advice for the CEO,

…And I think the CEO basically did not understand the importance of meaning. If the CEO, just like our participants, thought the essence of meaning is unimportant, then he [wouldn’t] care. And he would tell them, “At the moment I directed you in this way, and now that I am directing you in this way, everything will be okay.” But if you understood how important meaning is, then you would figure out that it’s actually important to spend some time, energy and effort in getting people to care more about what they’re doing.

12 insightful thoughts

  1. I’m a little disturbed that this wasn’t readily apparent to everyone. “Your project was canceled, do you still feel motivated to work?”

    Of course not… their project was just canceled.

  2. @Steve, unfortunately that is something a lot of managers are not aware of. They don’t see the “lower” workers as people, but as resources, as cogs in their machine that does things for them as directed. In my last job that is literally what we were called, “resources”. Not people, not developers, not team members, not employees, but “resources”. They feel it is fine to move people around and change direction at a moments notice and that’s just part of the job.

  3. Well duh. An ogre is running Microsoft. what do you expect?
    More divorces at that company than any other.
    They run their employees hard and extinguish creativity.

    The only place where creativity is fostered is in the legal department.
    Anything crafty to lock in or steal ideas is rewarded highly.

  4. Steve Ballmer should get the award for doing all the wrong things ever in a CEO’s career. How to ruin a successful company. Microsoft has been blinded by the greed that often plague CEOs who are more a used-car salesman than technical visionary. Such CEOs engage in brutish tactics to hit their numbers, without consideration for why the company was so successful to begin with. History is littered with companies that follow this path: visionary founder grows it into a power-house, leaves to tend to family or billion $ philanthropic foundation,and while he is gone, his #2, an operations person, not a visionary, precedes to rape the goodwill of its customers.

  5. Interesting story, but rather onesided. I wonder what the morale would be like if they had sunk many more man-hours and dollars into the project only to see it tank.

  6. Also, I love how all the above comments conveniently ignore that the whole “Create a magic team in the special building to explore and create the next big product” thing happened under Ballmer’s watch as well. Would they have even been able to begin working on a project like this under a different CEO? You have no way of knowing.

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