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Everything Tech Companies Should Know About Productivity Can Be Learned From Watching Mad Men

The fundamentals of Productivity haven't changed in 50 years.

The fundamentals of productivity haven’t changed in 50 years.

A couple years back, while binge watching Mad Men, I had a jarring realization- they were a bunch of drunks! No. Well, yes, but that’s for another blog post. The real light-bulb went on when I realized that nothing has changed at the office in 50 years. Longer even! It’s all the same fundamental actions, repeated day after day, year after year, decade after decade. Plato would recognize the patterns. Understanding this is crucial if you build or leverage common office tools & applications.

In today’s parlance, i’m talking about productivity- the term used by technology companies to describe the things you do in a professional setting, aka at the office. Of course, these days- the office can also mean your couch or on an airplane or your favorite cafe. Productivity itself encompasses a huge range of things- from developing proposals, to code, to creating designs, scripts, apps, widgets, gadgets, doo-hickeys and whatzits.

The epiphany I had while watching these suave ghosts of offices past brought lavishly to life is that we only really do four things while working. The big four are:

  • Create
  • Share
  • Discuss
  • Decide

That’s it. No matter how you dress them up, what MBA-speak you apply to them, it really comes down to just four fundamental actions. So grab a gin & tonic and let’s break them down a bit.

Create: Yes, create contains recreate, refine, revise, edit, rework, redo, scrap and start again, but really it’s all just create. Each scratch of a pencil, stroke of a pen, tap of a key, voice in a microphone, stroke of a stylus, excretion of plastic from a 3D printer- it’s all just the physical manifestation of what our brain can imagine. Create is turning darkness into light. Something from nothing. It is the most sublime things humans do. Treat creation with some reverence- it’s the best that we get.

Share: Whether you are walking down the hall with a storyboard, asking someone to lean over your shoulder as you take them through a virtual world, sending an email, printing a presentation (hey, it still happens), reviewing a forecast or balance sheet, chatting with coworkers or clients via Skype or conference call- the next step after creation is always to share your work.

Discuss: This is such a crucial part of the productivity process and one that, I think, still has the most room for improvement. Discussing what has been created, is still, I assert, best done in person, although many factors contribute to how often this actually occurs. So much of what we have to say to one another is not done with our words. Gesture, expression, nuance, energy- all function best in person. Email, the early hero of sharing, has sadly become, the ill-suited Goliath of discussion. The interminable discussion threads that travel around the office via email are the bane of all our existence and yet, we can’t quite quit them. They are just too easy to start and volley back and forth like a ping pong ball or a hot potato or sometimes- like a live grenade.

Decide: Next to create, decide is my favorite part of the process. I love to take action (which can be a liability, I know). Nevertheless, decisions can be made by groups or individuals and increasingly, we like to “believe” by data. Big data has become the darling of many decision-makers, though the smart money knows, that unlike sitting in Google’s self-driving car, few leaders would completely cede control of decisions to almighty data. Imagine sitting in that self-driving car completely blindfolded- how comfortable are you with that high speed trip on the Autobahn now? To decide is decidedly human.

Would you trust a self-driving car to make ALL the decisions? Data won't either.

Would you trust a self-driving car to make ALL the decisions? Would you get out of the driver’s seat and ride blind-folded?

Four fundamental functions. Create. Share. Discuss. Decide. Repeat ad infinitum.

The point of this is to say that there are no new activities being done at the office- which is a powerful insight because it frees you. If you are in the business of creating productivity, it frees you to focus on one area where you can make your mark- HOW. How these things are done is where the magic can happen. Where, dare I say it, the innovation happens. Strike down the idea of some new step in the process. Ban the idea of new ways to work. There is only Kaizen. There is only the continuous improvement of HOW.

Years ago, at Microsoft- I talked about how the company needed to focus on the mental models that people had in their brains. What I meant was, what do people “see” in their minds when they were doing these four fundamental activities? How much of a person’s brain did we own? The end game is to retain as much of the customer’s mental space as possible.

Before the digital age, our mental models were of physical things- paper, pencil, ink.

Before the digital age, our mental models were of physical things- paper, pencil, ink.

In Don Draper’s day, he might mentally envision a sketch pad or a notepad to capture an idea. He’d think about physical storyboards, the gritty feel of newsprint, or the silky feel of a magazine print between a reader’s fingers.

I would grind my teeth in frustration that no one seemed alarmed that the mental space once occupied by Word or Outlook or even PowerPoint was being cannibalized and consumed by Facebook posts, Twitter feeds, and YouTube videos- powerful technologies that did many of these things better. Microsoft dominated the mental space of most office workers and professionals. If they imagined it, Microsoft had the vehicle to move it from the intangible to the tangible. Today, an individual’s mental space is fragmented into a dozen or more, different platforms, with more competing for attention every day.

A software developer will move between his dev environment and the virtual product he is creating- perhaps a virtual sketch pad or notepad. Game developers will move between 2D code and the gorgeous, expansive worlds they create in AAA games. As a writer, I see a blank white page and care only about the fastest way to get my thoughts out of my head before they disappear. Swype, which feels like a cross between cursive and conducting a symphony, is starting to give keyboards a run for their money in this arena. I couldn’t have imagined that even five years ago.

If you are a technology company working in productivity, you need to get clear on which of these four fundamental activities you are trying to improve and then spend all your time thing about how. How. How. How. How. How can I decrease the distance between thought and action? How can I pull abstract ideas out of my customer’s brain? How can I improve sharing, discussing, deciding? How do I make it feel easy?

On the other hand, if you are a consumer of these tools, if you are in an industry that uses these tools to produce other things- lawsuits, drugs, movies, books, light bulbs- whatever, then you must think about how this piece of technology is improving our ability to execute against these fundamental processes? How is this helping me make a better light bulb? How is this helping me communicate with my customer more effectively?

In the world of productivity, the world of create, share, discuss, decide, there is no new step to be added to this process (though I’d love to hear your feedback if you have an argument to the contrary!). Don & Peggy would get along just fine in the digital office though they might miss their drinks & smokes. They would understand that there remains incredible opportunity for advancement. Even Shakespeare was wiser than he realized when he had Hamlet quip, “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space.” Indeed, productivity is simply a nut to be cracked, with infinite opportunity for improvement.

Never thought I’d say it, but thanks Don Draper, for enlightening me. Cheers!

#Karmagate: What we can learn from Satya, Michael Jordan, Jack Nicklaus, and oh, yeah- ourselves

Satya during a lighter moment at the Grace Hopper event.

Satya during a lighter moment at the Grace Hopper event.

Last week, after Satya made his disastrous, albeit insightful (into his thought process, anyway) comments at the Grace Hopper Convention, I had several folks reach out to ask for my opinion on the topic. Initially, I demurred, saying that everything worth saying would likely be said once Twitter was done with him, not to mention the New York Times, Time, Business Week, Forbes, TechCrunch, the Puget Sound Business Journal, and every other news outlet with a business desk.

I think I might have called it. #karmagate

I think I might have been the first to call it #karmagate

But then I thought- am I playing into the stereotype by letting others speak for me? After all, I believe in speaking up! I believe in asking for what you want! I believe in asking for stretch assignments! I believe in being vulnerable and seeing what happens! I believe in taking risks!

My approach has worked… over the long run. I guess you could call that karma…. but it’s the kind of karma that has a lot of elbow grease behind it. Not to mention, that I have taken some pretty good sized hits because of it too. But getting back up has a virtue all it’s own. Just ask Michael Jordan.

I’d liken my relationship to karma to that famous quote by Jack Nicklaus, “The more I practice, the luckier I get.” Turns out- the more I speak up, the more ALL women speak up, the more likely we’ll be listened to. So, in that spirit, I will share my thoughts on #karmagate.

I was disappointed though not surprised by Satya’s comments because I think they are a reflection of his reality up to this point in his career. I certainly wish that “karma” worked as well as Satya believes (believed?) that it does! Unfortunately, history has shown that relying on karma is not a sufficiently robust “tool” for the management of one’s career- particularly if you are a woman, person of color, or an older job seeker.

My hope is that Satya’s comments and the subsequent firestorm cause him to reflect upon the unconscious bias and assumptions that have underpinned his views. In fact, I’d love to see him push his entire leadership team to reflect upon and uncover the unconscious/unintended biases that may drive their views and decisions.  I hope with some study of the issue and a broader set of inputs- he’ll emerge from this as a more proactive advocate for change within Microsoft and the industry. As Nilofer Merchant said in her piece for Time, by putting the onus on “the industry,” he is distancing himself and Microsoft from taking a leadership role in fixing this problem. I’d like to see him commit to putting Microsoft front and center in the drive for gender equity in the workplace.

His biggest takeaway from this experience may be that bias is a sneaky adversary. You may think you are taking a very clear-eyed view of an issue, only to get smacked in the face with a Mack truck of unconscious bias. I hope he dedicates himself to watching for bias in his views and pushes his team to do the same. He made a strong first step by admitting fault (though his carefully worded response was a little protectionist).

One of my favorite sayings is “It’s not the mistakes we make that people remember, but how we recover from them.” So, here is his chance to make a memorable recovery. A single step doesn’t note make a journey, and we will all see where this leads him.

The other thing I think is interesting out of this debacle is how Satya’s comments (and that view about speaking up generally) intersect with other women’s/gender issues. In my blog post on Emma Watson’s speech at the UN, I took issue with what I thought was her overly conciliatory language. She “invites” men to join us in the quest for gender equity. “Invite” is about as passive and subordinate an action verb you can find. As much as I admired her making the speech at all, it left me wanting more.

In the business world, there is definitely a strong undercurrent that pushes women to minimize the use of strong (often code-worded as “inflammatory”) language. I have many times been asked to “tone it down”. And yes, it feels patronizing every time I hear it. The worst part about it though, is that statements like that are a subtle thief of an individual’s power because they take it away by degrees rather than all at once.

Satya’s gaffe has held up an important mirror that we can all reflect in. What biases are we unknowingly incorporating into the way each of us talks, thinks, and views the world?

I appreciate your comments, shares, and feedback! Tell me what YOU think!

Captain Bill and the Innovation Bullet Train

After my last post discussing the incredible power and social good that technologies like Facebook and Twitter are generating today, I got to thinking about how interesting it is that Microsoft hasn’t been a participant in this most recent round of platform-level innovation. In fact, in a way that was oddly similar to Microsoft’s reluctance to embrace the power of the internet, until Bill Gate’s watershed memo, when the whole company pivoted to bear-hug the Internet “tidal wave” (should have more accurately said tsunami…), Microsoft was also reluctant to embrace or leverage Twitter or Facebook. Perhaps another instance of “Not Invented Here Syndrome” that the company seems to suffer from? Anyway, then I got to thinking about the previous technology revolution, that Microsoft dominated, desktop computing.

Bill launching Windows 95

Bill launching Windows 95

Although my children will never know the world before the age of easy, accessible computers, the Windows operating system was practically a single-product global revolution that changed the world and created vast wealth for Bill and many others, as Twitter, Facebook, and Snapchat (shudder) are doing today for their young (mostly male, *sigh*) leaders.

So that line of thought brought me to another question- Bill is in a unique position, he has been the most prominent and influential figure in a technology revolution that brought amazing change to how our global citizenry communicates and works, and created tremendous wealth in the system and for himself. Then in 2000, rather than continuing to drive the engine of innovation and product development that he created- he boarded a new train: direct community investment.

Let’s unpack why this is such an interesting change. What Microsoft did through the 80’s and 90’s was ground-breaking and transformative and without a doubt, incredibly good from a social welfare perspective. The creation and expansion of affordable computing power leveled the playing field for invention, learning, development, communication, and made it possible for nearly *everyone* to participate and use computers for a myriad of purposes. There would be no Zuckerberg without Gates.

I’ll sidebar on Bill for a minute- I have never had an opportunity to meet him, but feel like

Bill's reading list is ALWAYS worth reading!

Bill’s reading list is ALWAYS worth reading!

I have a good measure of him based on his actions and writings over the years. (I am a devotee of his reading list!) He is a deeply thoughtful, highly intelligent, driven man who is passionate and committed to doing something meaningful with the power that his wealth has afforded him. I can only imagine the hours of reflection and thought that went into stepping away from Microsoft to lead the Foundation with Melinda.

One question that must have come up constantly as he wrestled with his departure from the company is, “Will I do more good via direct investment through the Foundation than I would do as the leader of Microsoft?”

It’s not an easy question to answer, though history tells us that he decided in favor of the Foundation, for which I applaud him and hope that he will serve as a model to other young leaders who also amass great fortunes.

I am a huge fan of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and one of the things that stands out to me is the recognition that even with the incredible financial resources at its disposal, the organization doesn’t try to directly assault any of the problems that fall within its charter (perhaps with the exception of eradicating Polio)- and indeed alleviating global poverty, improving global health and education are too vast to be simply solved through the liberal application of money. The underlying conditions and systems that cause and perpetuate these realities are too complex to be solved through money alone.

Rather, the Foundation has developed the concept of multiple focused, concentrated investments being made or seeded, with the aim of continuing to fund and grow those that take root and flourish. This model has roots in Biology and can be seen even at play in the free market system. The Foundation has great material on its mission and values- I highly recommend reading its Annual Reports.

I have little doubt that the Foundation’s impact and legacy, and thus Bill & Melinda’s, will be one of the highlights of the 21st Century, just as the computing revolution ushered us out of the 20th Century on a high note.

We are on a bullet train. Remember to take in the view!

We are on a bullet train. Remember to take in the view!

So what’s the moral of this little journey? In part, it’s a reflection on the rapidly changing world that we live in. When observed from a distant vantage point, innovation is like a bullet train and we are its lucky passengers, watching the world whiz by, a view that we can become numb to, if we don’t take the time to really *look* at the transformation happening before our very eyes. And yes, there are some very special people who participate in driving and fueling that train. Bill Gates is undoubtedly one of the best and most remarkable among them.

Above all- I’d love to get Bill’s thoughts on this question, anyone have his number?

As always, I appreciate you reading and sharing my blog! It’s fun to sit alone and ruminate on these questions, but I far prefer conversation- so please share your comments and thoughts!

Those Days are Gone Forever, You Should Just Let Them Go

With Ballmer’s big (and I mean, seriously grande-sized) restructure mail, we all have an idea of what the future will look like, at least functionally for the company.  Over the course of today, I had several friends and readers ping me, giving me a virtual nudge in the ribs, and saying something to the effect of “I can’t wait to hear what you are going to say about this!,” as if the news of celeb breakup just hit the wires.

Well, I may disappoint because I’m not going to forecast Microsoft’s doom.  Sure, a few concerns immediately come to mind and I tweeted them this morning.  It looks a lot like an attempt to return, at least structurally, to the heyday of twenty years ago, when the company was a third of its current size, Windows was a king rising, and money flowed down the hallways, sprouting millionaires at every office.  Back then, Apple was struggling to find its way, Google and Facebook didn’t exist and clouds were still something we laid on our backs to gaze up at.  Those days are  gone and as Don Henley sang, “Don’t look back, you can never look back.”

Microsoft is going totally functional- it’s a rigid, sterile model that Sinofsky championed in Windows and Office, and that now is being pushed to its extremity by re-centralizing everything, including Marketing and Finance.  It is a stifling model that forces people to be incredibly narrow, albeit deep in their skills development, at the risk of stunting creativity and well-rounded thinking.  Further, it’s been my experience that it takes a tremendous amount of work to build respect and communication across disciplines.  Engineering cannot be the only voice in the room- the competition is too fierce and engineering has been pushed to think myopically about technology for too long already.

As I said in an earlier blog post, there will be several more cards dealt in this hand over the coming months- this is just the opening ante.  One great strength of this restructure is that it puts “everyone in one room,” so that all the finance or engineering or marketing people can be viewed as a whole and no doubt, a lot of the redundancies will be eliminated.  I think this is a tacit acknowledgement that this needs to happen and the functional structure will make that process easier.

But once that’s done, will this model truly make Microsoft nimble, communicative, collaborative, decisive, and motivated, as Steve confidently stated?  It remains to be seen and despite my criticisms, I sincerely hope so.

There were a few glimmers of promise including a watershed moment for the senior leadership team (SLT).  As part of today’s announcement, we saw something wonderful (no, not the NSA revelations– that was NOT wonderful)- three women hold key positions within the top tier of leadership!  Amy Hood as CFO, Tami Reller in charge of Marketing, and most significantly, Julie Larson-Green as the head of the Devices and Studios Group- with some already crowning her heir-apparent.  Julie in particular has a reputation for driving collaboration and communication and if she can truly work that magic, it will be a huge boon to her new organization and to the SLT.  I couldn’t be pulling harder for Amy, Tami, and Julie to be successful in their new roles.

I do not want to predict the failure of this new structure nor sell short the strengths of the “new” leadership team- that would be akin to toasting a couple at their wedding and then predicting their divorce over cake.  Yes, there are flaws, there is a heck of a lot of baggage, there are monumental challenges competitively- but there are also thousands of smart, dedicated people within the company who are betting their careers on this turn around- and I DO believe in them.  On THIS day, I will look toward the future and wish the company every success.  Prost!

But let’s talk in 9 months.

Getting Heard- Upsides and Lessons Learned the Hard Way

Wow- getting a lot of hits on your blog is AWESOME!  I am thrilled by the reception my post received.  A person could get used to being read!  After my “Ballmer” post and subsequent interview by Emily Parkhurst with the Puget Sound Business Journal, I found myself confronted with the challenge of the “follow up” or second act, and as Sheryl Sandburg so capably talks about in her book, Lean In, women are often beset by feelings of “being lucky” or success being a “fluke,” which of course, is self-depreciation at its worst.  Oh no.  Not in THIS house- not with two daughters to be a good role model for.  So I poured myself a stiff drink (at least, metaphorically), put those fears aside and decided to get on with my next post.

First, I’d like to thank everyone that took the time to read my blog- whether you clicked through from Emily’s article or were already a reader.  I have appreciated the thoughtful feedback, the tweets, and the LinkedIn connections.  I’m particularly grateful to everyone who took a few minutes to read a little deeper- whether my post on creating “church without religion” or an early post about my “super boy,” your feedback means a great deal.

Given my relative obscurity, the response has been phenomenal and incredibly positive!  Whether the specific idea of a voluntary severance program caught your attention or just the chance to advocate for change, the consensus is obvious- something’s gotta give at Microsoft.  Sadly, Steve hasn’t called to share his plans, nor has he asked me to consult on the reorg (just to be clear- I’d jump at a chance to help!), so we will all have to wait and see what the next step is.  According to Kara Swisher’s AllthingsD post today, an announcement is coming- perhaps as soon as next week.  Fair to say- I’m hopeful it will be more than just a new set of acronyms and team jackets.

The success of my recent post, due in large part to Emily’s article giving my blog visibility, has me thinking about the challenge of ensuring that diverse ideas and perspectives are heard and valued within large companies and other complex institutions.  Taking your ideas to “the public” is not often a wise or worthwhile way to make your voice heard when you are still an employee and yet, an unsolicited email from an essentially unknown person is unlikely to capture senior leadership’s attention at a large company- trust me, I have tried!

So, how do companies improve the ability for diverse ideas to be heard and more importantly implemented?  Especially the implemented part- putting feedback into a company survey or pitching an innovative business model is one thing but it’s not the same as having that idea put into action and tested for results.  The most common method companies use to foster diversity is hiring more “diverse” people but this falls short on its own.  Sure, hiring a diverse workforce is a good “blunt instrument” approach, but if that diversity is only “in the numbers”, the full benefit of those efforts are not being realized.

Getting to 30%, 40%, or even 50% women in the workforce is a worthwhile (and easy to measure) goal but the crucial question is, does that diversity extend to strategic thinking and decision making (much harder to measure and quantify)?  Watch those stats deteriorate rapidly as you adjust for seniority.  Microsoft is a long way from being there, particularly at the most senior levels, though the recent elevation of the extremely capable Amy Hood to CFO is a step in the right direction.  And diversity is not just a gender thing-  getting to a “50/50” female/male ratio does not guarantee diversity of thought.  What about linear vs. creative, conservative vs. risk taking, short-term vs. long-term focused, customer vs. product?  Xbox is learning these lessons real-time right now.

Would crowdsourcing help?  Could there be a “kickstarter” model for ideas at a company?  Seems promising on the surface- “let the people decide!” but the challenge is overcoming the politics that are part of the process of casting your vote for an idea.  What if being known as someone who liked my blog was a liability within Microsoft?  I think most people at Microsoft, even those who may have disagreed with me, are pretty open-minded, but the potential risk is there and it makes me even more grateful to those colleagues who shared it.

I don’t know what the answer to this question is- it has a complex set variables.  Often, “out of the box” thinking or suggestions miss the bigger picture or may not take into account subtle but legitimate issues or constraints that only more senior leaders know about.  I know I have been “schooled” in the complexity of an issue after presenting a neatly packaged solution as the “fait accompli”, only to learn about serious limitations or factors that I hadn’t accounted for.  I’d leave the meeting or presentation wishing I’d better known the full context and vowing to spend more time trying to look around the corners of an issue before the next time.

However, from these experiences I have learned a couple of important things.  First, go in knowing that your idea will be changed– in fact, 90% of it may be thrown out, but if 10% sticks, that is a significant contribution.  Be proud!  Then reevaluate the 90% that didn’t make the cut and figure out why.  Second, getting feedback- even (perhaps, especially!) criticism means people are listening and that’s a huge compliment.  This one takes time to learn- feedback, particularly harsh criticism, is hard to absorb gracefully, but if someone is taking the time to give you feedback, it means that they believe you are worth teaching and have the capacity to grow.  When you want to start worrying is when you are ignored.

Finally, I believe this with all my heart-  Keep trying, keep standing up, keep waving the flag, and most important- keep caring.  Apathy is the enemy of progress and when you sit back, opt-out, or stop caring, you perpetuate the status quo.  Don’t be surprised when it finally catches up to you.

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