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Sustained Innovation — A Real Possibility with a Collaborative Culture

In a letter addressed to the entire company, Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadellas describes his vision of Microsoft’s future:

We need to prioritize innovation that is centered on our core value of empowering users and organizations to “do more.”…every one of us needs to do our best work, lead and help drive cultural change. We sometimes underestimate what we each can do to make things happen and overestimate what others need to do to move us forward. We must change this.
– Satya Nadellas, February 2014

What does this mean for Microsoft’s innovation strategy? Will Microsoft employees be able to redefine their culture in order to become the innovator that it is equipped to be? What does it take to sustain innovation?

Sustained Innovation

Many associate innovation with disruptive breakthroughs so the idea of a sustained culture of innovation may seem unnatural. At the same time, when you think of culture of innovation, companies such as Google often come to mind first. Microsoft may not be an obvious choice as a sustained innovator but that is because they have been innovating so long we almost cannot recognize the sustained innovation.

Microsoft has been one of the most successful and highest profiting companies over the past three decades largely due sustained innovations such as Microsoft Office which we often forget is an innovation itself. Still, there is always room to improve. Some suggest that Microsoft has even missed some key opportunities to innovate, such as with smartphones and search engines in the last few years which may be attributed to their corporate culture.

Competitive vs. Collaborative Innovative Culture

Could culture have something to do with establishing sustained innovation? One area that Nadellas is trying to change is Microsoft’s culture. Microsoft has a history of supporting a warrior culture, allowing internal competition to, in the past, drive innovation but not may be hindering innovation.

In a New York Times article, former Microsoft VP, Dick Brass gives several examples to illustrate how the competitive culture led to breakdowns in innovation programs. He suggests that, “…while the company has had a truly amazing past and an enviably prosperous present, unless it regains its creative spark, it’s an open question whether it has much of a future.

Microsoft’s culture of competition has resulted in many profitable innovations; however, it does not seem to work well in today’s environment. This is evident in key missed opportunities that Microsoft has not taken advantage of.

Satya’s letter calls for cultural change to put innovation back at the front and center of their strategic priorities. How can they achieve this? They can start by converting their competitive culture to a collaborative, innovative culture.

Here are four practical steps to convert from a competitive to collaborative innovative culture:

  1. Integrate easy-to-use software or platforms to allow teams to collaborate and communicate. Give them a platform to share ideas, solve problems, improve, and most importantly, innovate together.
  2. Make managers accountable for promoting collaborative innovative cultures. We know thatleadership is the backbone of culture, and if they take a stance to promote a collaborative culture, the rest will follow.
  3. Celebrate all pursued ideas, regardless of success. Recognition of all pursued ideas establishes a relationship of trust and encourages more engagement.
  4. Provide a great framing question to kick-start the employee innovative juices. The framing question will give guidelines for the types of ideas that align with company strategy and are more likely to be implemented.

Is innovation just for the startups, the newcomers and the disruptors? Should Microsoft give up and admit defeat? We don’t think so. In fact, through cultivating the right culture, Microsoft can secure their place as a model for innovation that leverages its talents, culture, and vast resources.

Harness the power of employee ideas.