I just attended a session on Real World Innovation – from Idea to Product. This panel session, comprised of Phil Fawcett (moderator), John Lefor, Lili Cheng, John Breese, Jeff Erwin, Katie Drucker, and Renee Labran – focused on how new ideas are integrated into Microsoft both internally and externally in products and additional offerings. I have a special interest in this particular session, so I jumped on it when Steven Forte asked me to cover it.
The session started by first focusing on Microsoft research and how they contribute to internal only tools, direction, and product influence. I’ve seen some amazing things from Microsoft Research over the years and found it interesting to hear more about its internals – both from a practical perspective and from a pure cool factor perspective. I found Lili most interesting in this regard however. She’s driving research around Social Computing (new term for me today) – some of what we will be seeing in Longhorn. Lots of really great Q&A around this, so I knew I wasn’t alone in wondering how we can better use our computers and the immense amount of information we process by putting structure and reference around it all and displaying it in new innovative ways. What I find very interesting is how slow the rate of adoption of many of the research results into product groups and in to the public domain. It does happen though – and some aspects of Longhorn are clearly representative of this fact.
Next, the panel focused on taking ideas to the next level. Katie comes from a Venture Capital background and is in charge of the bottom up driven approach to developing new ideas into real offerings. She provides facet’s where people throughout the company can express and refine their ideas whether it means new the creation of entirely new products or extensions of existing ones. Taking a VC approach means that there is a feel of practicality around it all. These ideas need to be real and solve problems. I think she’s got a great job – allowing everyone within the company to express their ideas essentially allowing Microsoft to realizing the genius that is spread throughout the organization – not just the good stuff that comes from Microsoft research. I think this is true for all companies and we should all work to encourage the expression of genius and creativity in our work space. What’s important to always realize, however, is that the rate of rejection and the rate of failure is much greater then the rate of success – for many reasons. She gets 20-30 ideas a month –these ideas must be defined and refined before then can really take on a life. I’m sure rejection is tough for a lot of people – I’m interested in how people deal with it.
From a bottom down perspective (driving new ideas and products from the results of Microsoft research) we have Jeff Erin, who was the driving force behind Visio I might add. It may seem that what Jeff and Katie do conflict with one another, but I personally think it’s a perfect compliment – meeting somewhere in the middle.
The last panelist, Renee worked for a VC firm (who, by the way, passed up eBay and probably regrets it) and provided some needed insight into the world of VC. She mentioned that most VC firms have an initial filter process – meaning that they only really listen to pitches from companies who have been referred to them by other colleagues (lawyers, consultants, etc). Mental note, don’t try to call a VC directly – they don’t like it.
From the VC and idea driving perspective there are a couple of take aways. It’s about persistence. It’s about people (VC’s are more likely to give to strong people rather than strong ideas). It’s about passion. It’s about allowing your idea to be refined and being open to change. And it’s about creativity and communication.
All I have to say is that after seeing Longhorn this week – this obviously works for Microsoft. The innovation in the product is tear jerking. You can clearly see where many of the new features of Longhorn have evolved from – but some of them are just new without a question. Companies like Microsoft are about people - and it’s in the best interest of every company to harness the genius and creativity in all their employees allowing for the sum of the whole to GREATLY outweigh the sum of its parts. In order to accomplish this, you need to provide an open channel of expression but also a realistic approach to implementation as a whole. Old school doesn’t really promote this, however, wanting people to work in boxes – to be focused on the task at hand. The challenge is to break down these barriers – to truly inspire and allow for inspiration.
I’ll stick some photos of the event next week…. I’ll probably revisit this discussion on my plane ride back to snowy Winnipeg.