This post is adapted from a paper that appears in the Journal of Business Strategy entitled Cultural Innovation in Software Design: The New Impact of Innovation Planning Methods.
In the world or celebrity fame often seems to come overnight—sometimes it does. With entrepreneurs and startups success often seems to happen overnight as well. In truth, many great ideas and, and stars, are made and shaped over time. This is double true in the enterprise, where size and inertia can sabotage the best of intentions. Many of the successes we see in the market place today—or that are imminent, really got there start long ago.
the fall of 2007 Steven Ballmer addressed Microsoft employees during its internal annual meeting and outlined the strategic imperatives that the company would focus on for 2007 and 2008. In addition to talking about Microsoft’s core pillars of business and technology, he focused on a new one, User Experience. Mr. Ballmer spent a considerable amount of time talking about how user experience would become the third pillar on which Microsoft would stage its success in software. This was welcome news to the 574 designers that worked at Microsoft in the fall of 2007, comprising just a fraction of the 79,000 total employees that worked at Microsoft at the time. However, the news came at a particularly troubling time. Microsoft was recently experiencing a exodus of senior design talent. This presented a troubling dilemma if Microsoft was to focus fully on this new imperative and an internal study indicated why. Despite an executive commitment to design, such as the recent hiring of design researcher Bill Buxton and the success of designers such as Steve Kaneko with the Xbox and Zune, many designers simply didn’t feel that the company had a cultural grasp of the value of design.
“21 out of 23 designers interviewed expressed that executive staff ‘does not understand design’ and they do not believe design is ‘part of the Microsoft culture’.”
The UX leadership teams were faced with both a dilemma and a wonderful set of circumstances in which to solve it. One of the first things UX leaders did in Microsoft was take a hard look at some of the challenges of being a designer in Microsoft and developed a special leadership program for UX designers that was launched in January of 2008. The program focused on four key areas which were: strategic thinking, user experience vision, communication, and organizational agility.
We’ll cover the first one in today’s post and then dive into the remainder three in future posts.
Strategic thinking programs were focused on helping traditional designers and user experience practitioners in developing skills to align decision-making cycles with business strategies to drive innovation. In turn, these skills and their benefits were also readily explained to product managers across Microsoft—the role that ultimately guides and provides leadership for the vision of a product or service within Microsoft.
Two major influences in this area had impact. One was the work of Roger Martin and his thesis around how organizations need to seek validity versus reliability. Martin’s work resonated specifically around Microsoft’s need to balance incremental innovation through refinement of existing knowledge with the need to enable breakthrough innovations.
Microsoft, as typical of many enterprises, focused on developing evidence for future products needs based on past outcomes. It used a limited number of objective variables to removed judgment and bias from decisions to support innovation. Martin characterized this type of substantiation as reliability (looking into the past to make an informed judgment about the future). Designers focused on substantiation based on future events. They used a broad number of diverse variables. Using processes that integrated judgment and acknowledged the reality of bias or looking for a production of outcomes that meets objectives for product. Martin characterized the skill sets and their propensity via the predilection gap and although working from different directions and using different vocabularies many in Microsoft recognized that the concept of reliability versus validity needed to be better integrated into our product development lifecycles.
Image Copyright © 2008 by Roger L. Martin
This type of thinking was starting to be applied to Microsoft’s product planning thinking. For example, the following chart refers to existing product development models that possess a strong focus on reliability.
Figure 1. Traditional program management
Recent trends and thinking around the reliability versus viability dynamic have altered this model to be more representative of the following.
Figure 2. Current trends: Value proposition and combined engineering teams
 (Petschnigg, 2007)
 (Martin, The HBR List: Breakthrough Ideas for 2005, 2005)
 (Martin, Design Thinking: The Next Competitive Advantage, 2008)
Now what’s interesting is to pay attention to how some of these changes that were put in place a few years ago are impacting Microsoft today. One of the first places this thinking was applied was with Office 2007, one of the second was the development of Windows 7. Increasingly we’ll continue to see the benefits of this thinking with products and services that will be announced in 2009.