The curious departures of Windows’ Sinofsky, iOS’ Forstall

Last week saw the sudden and unexpected departure of Microsoft’s Windows chief Steven Sinofsky. Two weeks prior saw a similar quick exit for Apple’s iOS head Scott Forstall.

Both occurred after major releases had just debuted from their respective companies. For Sinofsky, that meant Windows 8…Forstall, iOS 6. And, both have had reputations of being difficult to work with–“divisive” and “polarizing” are words used to describe both of them.

I’m not suggesting that there’s any connection between them, other than what I’ve mentioned. It’s not like Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer called Apple CEO Tim Cook and said, “Hey, good idea to get rid of that difficult guy! I’ve got a ‘difficult guy’ here that I just figured out how to handle!”

I’m more concerned with the underlying issues here…and what this could mean–both good and bad–for both companies. Kevin Kelleher of Pandodaily.com has some ideas:

It would be easy to overstate the similarities between Microsoft and Apple, and also between Sinofsky’s and Forstall’s departures. But some of the parallels are particularly telling. In the wake of both departures, former colleagues stepped forth to explain what happened, usually anonymously. The narrative emerging from Microsoft is that the company’s future will be more harmonious without him. Similarly, Apple’s future vision was said to be more seamless without Forstall.

On the surface, this sounds like two happy endings in the making for a pair of companies that were once the bitterest of enemies. But I suspect it will lead to something else: Several years of growing profits for both Microsoft and Apple, but years that are also more predictable, less inspired, and nowhere near as adventurous as they were under the influence of the brilliant but polarizing executives.

Apple has often been called the world’s largest startup, with some justification. It’s much harder to argue that Microsoft operates like a startup, but Sinofsky’s blunt, uncompromising managerial style helped Microsoft not only recover from Windows Vista with a more functional Windows 7, but also remake the operating software all over again with Windows 8.

And like Forstall, Sinofsky alienated a lot of people in the process. Which is often what it takes for a startup CEO to build a successful company. Innovation isn’t simply a matter of coming up with a bright new idea, it’s also the execution of that idea into the marketplace. The gap between the two swallows up a lot of talented startups. Making the leap requires a managerial will strong enough to make the decisions, compromises, and gut calls that are often so counterintuitive they seem crazy.

This is a big reason why life at startups is often so chaotic. Creativity among groups is rarely effective when it’s not messy. The group consensus of brainstorming can be comforting, but brainstorming is getting a bad rap these days, with evidence that dissent, conflict, or even solitude are more conducive to creativity.

more harmonious corporate culture may be what Microsoft needs to execute a broad vision that links PCs, tablets, smartphones, the Xbox, and cloud services. Just as a more unified design and product vision may be what Apple needs to stay more focused and agile in a competitive industry. And so the executive shakeups at both companies are likely to bring some benefits.

But those benefits may come at the cost of losing the people who served as divisive but effective creators of operating systems. In today’s tech industry, operating software plays an enormous role in determining winners and losers. Sinofsky and Forstall stepped on a lot of toes to bring their visions of what an OS should be to the market. Neither will be a polarizing force at their old companies. But both Apple and Microsoft may be that much less bold in their thinking.

The history of business is full of companies that started out full of innovation, but as they grew successful became less and less willing to take the risks involved with it. In Apple’s case, innovation has always been a large part of its existence. However, Microsoft has failed to do much of it for years…now they have a new product that’s considered to be innovative, as well as the first PC–actually a tablet, but also innovative–that they produced themselves and were able to stick their own name on. This is what rival Apple does, and successfully–creates both its own hardware and software in an integrated package.

They also have a new operating system–and in several different flavors–that is certainly innovative, although it remains to be seen how well it will be accepted.

It’s been explained to us what got Forstall shown the door. We’re still not certain what happened to cause Sinofsky to depart, and we probably never will know all the details. Still, there are a couple of questions that require answers:

1. Was Sinofsky allowed to walk away…and, if so, what were you thinking, Microsoft? This is the man that has helped lead your software development since the early days of Office, in 1994. He might have been difficult, but he got you out of that Vista mess and developed a successful followup in Windows 7.

Sinofsky’s penchant for difficult and hard-to-get-along-with behavior is kind of like the joke told by Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) in the movie “Annie Hall”:

I thought of that old joke, y’know, the, this… this guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, “Doc, uh, my brother’s crazy; he thinks he’s a chicken.” And, uh, the doctor says, “Well, why don’t you turn him in?” The guy says, “I would, but I need the eggs.”

You definitely need the eggs.

Whatever it was, couldn’t you have negotiated with him to stay? This is kind of an important time for your company!

2. Even worse, was he fired? There’s nothing that says confidence in your new product line than sacking the person that created it, wouldn’t you agree?

(This just in: Gizmodo.com reported on Monday that Sinofsky was in fact fired by Ballmer.)

Again, it’s too soon to tell how all of this will affect Microsoft and its various new Windows offerings overall. They could fail miserably…they could be wildly successful. I am certain that with as much at stake here, there is no middle ground. A modest success will be thought of as a failure. Microsoft expects to hit it out of the park.

That could be difficult now that they’ve traded away their best hitter.

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