You can’t shake the feeling that your company is headed for a cliff. But most of your colleagues don’t quite realize it. After all, on the surface business is good. But you see how technology is going to shake the ground your company is standing on, perhaps even toppling the business itself.
So what can you do?
For some discontented technologists, the answer is to let fly with a “disruption memo”—a lengthy (and ultimately public) declaration that dissects the threats to a company’s competitive position.
The genre includes such memorable documents as Yahoo’s Peanut Butter Manifesto of 2006 and Nokia CEO Stephen Elop’s “burning platform” memo of 2011. Born from frustration, and an insider’s knowledge, such texts can be gripping. This year, an Internet post in which a Google engineer described problems at that company was judged “the best article [ever] about architecture and the management of IT” by one person who commented on it online.
The ability to issue an outcry to the whole company, no matter whether you are the CEO or someone lower in the chain, is something that didn’t exist before blogs and e-mail. But before you seize the opportunity to dash off your own screed and send it to “All Staff,” consider some advice. Two authors of famous leaked memos, Ray Ozzie and Brad Garlinghouse, spoke with Technology Review and led us through the dos and don’ts of crying disruption.
1. Be detailed in your analysis.
A good disruption memo proves that you know what you’re talking about.
When Ozzie replaced Bill Gates as Microsoft’s chief software architect in 2005, he was worried about the company’s direction. Although Microsoft still reaped huge profits, other companies were increasingly setting the agenda online. So Ozzie spent weeks writing a 5,000-word memo titled “The Internet Services Disruption“—a highly detailed warning to his new colleagues that Microsoft had to develop a coherent strategy for navigating “a time of great turbulence and potential change in the industry.”
After years at Lotus Development and Groove Networks, a startup he founded, Ozzie had a sterling reputation in computing. Even so, he says, he felt the need to ingratiate himself with Microsoft’s roughly 90,000 employees. So with the help of a technical assistant, he was careful to ground his memo with discussions of programming technologies. That was especially important because 10 years earlier Gates had written the 1990s version of essentially the same call to arms (“The Internet is a tidal wave. It changes the rules”), and Ozzie’s document was bound to attract comparisons.
“What I was trying to do was, in essence, establish credibility. Some people knew me, some didn’t,” says Ozzie, who left Microsoft a year ago and is now planning his next career step. “I was trying to make sure we all got on the same page.”
2. Stay positive. And bring a scoop.
To be effective, be sure you describe problems and solutions.
Garlinghouse was a senior vice president at Yahoo when he wrote the so-called Peanut Butter Manifesto. In 1,900 words segmented by bullet points and boldface text, he argued that Yahoo had spread itself too thin (like peanut butter on bread) and left opportunities open for rival Internet companies. But then he suggested ways to fix the problems, including closing divisions and restructuring the company. “Keep it constructive. If it’s just a bitch session, we can all do that,” says Garlinghouse, who today is the president of applications and commerce at AOL (a job he’s leaving at the end of this month). “You can bring the poop, but you’ve got to bring the scoop. If you’re going to crap on something, you should suggest a way to clean it up.”