Thoughts on Innovation

A friend passed along a post by Gabe Rijpma from an internal DL that I really wanted to share, as many of the points mentioned have come up in various MEC conversations, including our discussion with Steve Smith last week. Gabe works in the Health and Human Services Operations space over in Singapore. I am including his post in its entirety:

I had a very interesting and informative breakfast meeting this morning in Singapore with Prof. John Seely Brown (, many of you may know him as the former Chief Scientist at Xerox Corporation and Director of PARC. The topic focused around Innovation and what things individuals and companies need to do to drive on an ongoing culture of innovation. Since we are in the business of innovation ourselves and in my view do it very well I thought some of the discussion this morning was relevant to us and made some notes of the salient points I thought we could challenge ourselves with.

idea_bulbThey are just notes and the thought process I went through in the discussion, they are not meant as a critique of what we do and don’t do well. They are here just to provide us an opportunity to brainstorm innovation and how that might apply to MS. I think some of the things like reverse mentoring are ideas that could be effective for us and I am sure some groups are already leveraging that.

Things Innovative Companies Need to Do

Innovation is easy, getting organisations to move and give up old ideas is the hardest. Are we getting out of tune with the market? Perhaps the biggest obstacle to innovation is wisdom because it’s wisdom that says “we have tried that before and it doesn’t work”. Well the world moves on and the landscape changes and perhaps that past wisdom is now actually a blocker to our ability to think and innovate for what is needed now. How do you build an organisation that is well attuned to removing organisational blockers to trying things again?

Customer as a source of innovation

Is the age of customer research and market sampling to drive product strategy useful when it comes to technology innovation? Are customers really able to provide effective and useful data into a product planning process when they may not actually know what they want or can imagine what might work? Is it better to find new ways of getting iterative feedback through the development and production process and allowing that to prioritise the innovation? He provides examples of the way Amazon and Google build products with little research and see how they stick and then drive improvements to the ones that show potential rapidly while allowing others to deprecate. Online platforms lending themselves well to trial and error and direct customer feedback. In short customers need to be captured in the build process more often than just doing pre market research for product planning.

Innovation from the bottom up

This type of innovation is catching on incredibly quickly, mashups using Google Maps to help with Hurricane Katrina combined with SMS and Mobile Phones, Disease monitoring applications to map common cold and flu break outs in cities. How do the platform pieces of web 2.0 facilitate a whole new level of innovation from the bottom up? The value of a platform to make this easy and to tool it in a way that allows almost anyone to build solutions against that in a global manner offers tremendous opportunity. Similar to the way Windows is a platform for bottoms up innovation and how drag and drop development with VB and Access made it possible for anyone to build out the applications they needed, the Internet offers an incredible platform for new and groundbreaking bottoms up innovation. The people who develop and invent the tools that make it easy for anyone to leverage these services and build new classes of services and applications will facilitate a whole new era of innovation…. Google, Facebook etc cited as strong examples.

A willingness to fail

Are organisations willing enough to fail, at Xerox 75% of most research projects failed, having a willingness to fail allows for risk taking and exploration, vital to driving innovation. Some cultures are more comfortable with failure than others and it often has a direct correlation to innovation.

Where and how do you bootstrap talent – Youth as a source of innovation

Are we leveraging enough of the young and highly energetic talent in the organisation to drive innovation or is innovation being steered by mature, experienced and wise individuals? Are we allowing enough individual expression in the organisation to capture the raw talent and generational understanding that comes from our young? Example Google (young workforce very tapped into the current generational thinking)

Reverse Mentorship

Do we have processes in place that encourages reverse mentoring, we are very good at mentoring from senior people in the organisation to more junior people but are we effectively doing it the other way round as to drive an understanding of the world through our younger people and the innovation and world they would like to see? Should we have a reverse mentoring role in place to help drive product and innovation strategy? Are we doing that effectively today? Example provided was P&G and what they are doing with this process to drive product development…. I thought this would be very good at MS.

Teach Less Learn More

How do we build models of education that don’t just drive a teach and absorb model? How do we encourage learning that is peer based (that’s where the fun is), how do Social Networks play a role in that, do Social Networks allow us to drive innovation not just from the brain but also from the emotional connections we build? How does one learn more through that social fabric be it virtual or physical? How do we build new models of learning or deliver tools that courage self learning leveraging the content on the Internet? What kinds of tools and technologies would aid in that discover of knowledge?

All up a very interesting morning, would love to hear others thoughts on some of the topics above. A lot of the things discussed we do at MS and we have a very keen understanding of platforms. We have been arguably the most successful platform ever. Taking that expertise to the Internet is to me the frontier that we need to solve, it’s about developers but even more so it’s about empowering end users to create and innovate leveraging the services on the Internet.

Two points here really resonate with me, during my short tenure (2.5 years) here at Microsoft: our difficulty in allowing people to learn from failure (it must be done right the first time), and the gap between customer-facing teams and the influence (or lack thereof) they sometimes have ino the product development process.

I’d love to hear some feedback on what we, as managers, can do to address the points made above, both within the Management Excellence community and within our own teams.

Thanks for the great post, Gabe!

One Response to Thoughts on Innovation

  1. cbuck says:

    Came across a link to Seth Godin’s blog on “What Advertising Can’t Fix” ( that speaks volumes about innovation at Microsoft – or perceptions about innovation within the company. I think this paragraph nails it:

    “If you talk to Google employees, odds are that they are totally engaged and on a mission to change the way people interact with the internet and with information. Talk to a Microsoft person and they will be happy to talk about reliability or standards they set or the way to engage the bureaucracy of the organization.”

    This is a pervasive view of how things are even from within the rank and file of the company, and this is *exactly* the reason the MEC is so important — because our goal is to change this perception. We’ve all seen that spark of greatness in our orgs, within product teams – somewhere inside Microsoft. But this needs to once again become the constant, not the exception.

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