Jul 042012
launch of the Windows Phone 7

Vanity Fair’s analysis of Microsoft’s lost decade focuses on an unlikely culprit – the management tool of stack ranking.

Stack ranking, or “forced distribution”, is the practice of listing staff members in order of effectiveness or placing them on a bell curve where those in the middle are satisfactory and those at the right hand of the graph are exceptional.

Those on the left of the curve or the bottom of the list are deemed to be underperformers and risk losing their bonuses or even their jobs should the company be shedding staff.

Like all business tools, stack ranking can be useful. One manager of a North American multinational who encountered this when working with an Indian outsourcer described how it was used.

“A senior manager told me how he applied it in his group. Of 300 people, everybody was given a ranking and were told that ranking and given a chance to put their case if they thought it was unfair.
Then the bottom 5% were culled. Tough but fair.”
So at the Indian outsourcer it was applied to large groups and the bottom tier were given the opportunity to put their case. There was some transparency and at least some fairness in the process.
Used poorly though, it can backfire, “using it for groups of ten is stupid and lazy” said that manager who later saw it introduced at his own corporation with catastrophic results.

The real problem at companies misusing tools like stank ranking is too much management.

Like the old saw of “too many cooks spoil the broth”, too many managers create mischief. To justify and protect their positions they build little empires and make work for themselves.

Give empire building middle managers a tool like “stack ranking ” and you have a problem where office politics and patronage become more important than technical skill or performance which is exactly what the Vanity Fair article describes at Microsoft.

Ranking employees in a mindless way is symptom of a bigger problem in an organisation. In Microsoft’s case, the problem is too many managers.

The solution to that problem is simple.

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