Collaborative Technology Leads to Collaborative Leadership

In my 2007 book Group Genius, I predicted that the organization of the future would drive innovation with collaboration.

In the ten years since, this prediction has largely come true. Yesterday the Wall Street Journal described how several big companies have shifted to a more collaborative, more innovative organizational structure–enabled by collaborative software that didn’t exist back in 2007, like Slack or Microsoft Teams. This is a big reason why I’ve written a second edition of Group Genius (to be published later this year).

New data-driven capabilities are breaking down barriers between formerly siloed business units, flattening out management structures and streamlining production processes, prompting many firms to redraw leadership roles and responsibilities.

Companies moving toward innovative structures include Equifax, Liberty Mutual, and Procter & Gamble. For example, Equifax is moving to “small, cross-functional teams”. And the role of leaders changes, too: “rather than issue top-down directives, these managers instead strive to help self-directed teams leverage collaboration and sharing tools.” Managers are changing from “dictating how things should be done” to acting more like coaches who guide collaborative teams.

My own research on collaboration and creativity explains why and how this works: Innovation emerges, bottom up, from improvisational, nonlinear, and unpredictable processes. The organizations that can channel and foster this bottom-up, emergent process, will be the winners in the innovation competition of the future.

The organizational structures and cultures that lead to innovation have always been collaborative, distributed, and improvisational. Even before the Internet, a few rare organizations were able to design for innovation and collaboration. But today, Internet-based collaboration software is making it a lot easier for companies to shift to innovative organization designs.

If You’re an Innovator, You Should Switch to Microsoft Windows

In 2012, Microsoft came up with the first innovation in personal computer operating systems in almost 40 years.

Not Apple. Not Google.


Windows 8, released by Microsoft in 2012, is the first new user interface since Xerox PARC created the mouse-and-windows desktop visual metaphor in the 1970s. That was long before we had smartphones and touch screens and the cloud. For Windows 8, instead of incremental innovation, Microsoft chose the path of radical innovation. They asked: What would a user interface look like if we started from scratch? If we designed for touch screens and smartphones and tablets and cloud connected devices, instead of big chunky office computers?

Of course, the icons would be bigger, making them easier to touch. (Those tiny icons are designed to be clicked by a mouse, not touched by a finger.)

That means you’d have to ditch the desktop background, but that’s just wasted space anyway.

Now that the icons are bigger, you can display useful information on the icons.

You’d make everything big enough to touch with your finger, and you wouldn’t need a mouse or a touchpad anymore.

Everything would automatically sync between devices through the cloud.

This is exactly what Microsoft did with Windows 8 in 2012, and after two years using these devices, I’m convinced the user experience is far superior. In 2013, my Windows XP devices were old, I was moving to a new job, and I was ready for a completely new set of hardware. I considered going all in with new Apple devices; I had an iPhone and I loved it. And then, I considered Windows 8, and I realized pretty quickly that it’s a better design for today’s computer devices–especially mobile devices.

Surface Pro

I purchased a Windows 8 phone, two Windows 8 desktop computers (one for home and one for the office), a Windows Pro Surface tablet, and a Lenovo Yoga. From day one, everything worked seamlessly and I’ve never looked back. I especially love using the tablets (Surface and Yoga) and the smartphone. (Often when I flip over my Lenovo Yoga, someone in the meeting will give it a look of fascination, and ask “Is that an Apple?”) Across all five devices, everything syncs automatically: my Outlook contacts and calendar and email, my documents. And I have one seamless user experience. (Try touching your finger on the screen on your Apple computer.)

Who knows why Apple and Google (with Android) didn’t use good design thinking and take the path of radical innovation? I generally respect those companies and they’ve generated some awesome innovations. But with computing devices, Apple and Google have chosen the path of incremental innovation. Let’s all thank Microsoft for breaking out of the industry’s groupthink.

Like many innovators, Microsoft got a lot of hate for breaking the conventional mold. A lot of people were used to holding their mouses all day long, and they got confused. Developers often don’t release their apps for Windows phones (only 3 percent of smartphone sales). Many tech reporters call Windows 8 an “international calamity” or much worse. They should know better.

People were used to a simple formula: Apple equals innovation, Microsoft equals boring and corporate. Face it, tech reporters: the formula isn’t true anymore.

Owning an Apple laptop used to mean you were cool. It symbolized sleek design and individuality. It made you feel a bit more creative. But now using an Apple just shows that you’re like everyone else, and you don’t like change. Designers, innovators, and creatives should know better. It’s time to switch to a user interface experience that’s designed for the 21st century.

If you believe in good design, if you’re an innovator, if you’re committed to well-designed user experience, you should be using Windows devices.

Also see this blog post “Farewell, Desktop Metaphor”

What Americans Think About Creativity

I just read the results of a fascinating new survey of 2,040 adult U.S. consumers, conducted online in April for TIME Magazine, Microsoft, and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). #strangebedfellows

First of all, Americans value creativity in others more than just about any other characteristic:

TIME 2013 survey 1








And although 83% of people say creativity is important in their job, a whopping 91% say it’s important in their personal life.

Fifty percent of people think creatively in pictures, only 34% in words. And 4% think creatively in sound…probably the musicians!

For you students and teachers out there: 62% say that creativity is more important to job success than they thought it would be when they were in school.

*If you follow the link below to the online article, you’ll discover that the survey is connected to a conference held on April 26, 2013, hosted by the MPAA, called “The Creativity Conference,” and you can watch video excerpts there (including of President Bill Clinton).

Jeffrey Kluger, “Assessing the Creative Spark,” TIME Magazine May 20, 2013.

Google Buys Motorola: The Real Story

This is big news: Google buys Motorola for $12.5 billion. Why buy a mobile phone company that’s struggling? What makes it worth so much money? Why does Google want to get into the hardware business, anyway?

Everyone in the industry understands the real reason: Google wants Motorola’s 17,000 patents. Google doesn’t intend to use the patents to invent new products; instead, they intend to use the patents as defensive tools in an obscure but critical corporate battlefield: intellectual property law. Last month, a coalition of companies including Apple and Microsoft paid $4.5 billion for the 6,000 patents of Nortel Networks. Google felt threatened; they needed a comparable pool of patents to seriously compete in the legal battles that are guaranteed to follow.

The reason why legal battles are guaranteed is that every company is vulnerable. There are so many patents on software ideas, and they’re so vaguely and broadly written, that every company might be said to be in violation of something. Google’s chief lawyer recently wrote “A smartphone might involve as many as 250,000 patent claims” that are probably questionable, but still you have to defend against those claims in court. So what happens is that the big guys get their lawyers and accountants together in a room, and they trade patents like poker chips. Eventually, they come to an agreement not to sue one another, sometimes in exchange for a supplementary cash payment (if everyone agrees that one pool of patents is worth more than another).

Apple, Microsoft, and Google are mature companies and they’ll work out a deal. What everyone is more worried about are the so-called “patent trolls.” These are companies that don’t make anything; they only exist to sue other companies for violating their patents. (The nice term for them is “non-practicing entities.”) You can’t negotiate with them because they don’t need anything that you have; they only want a cash settlement.

Is this the way to foster maximum innovation? I’m not a lawyer, but I have to believe the answer is NO.

Also see my previous posts on patent law:

Microsoft and Innovation

I just read a fascinating articled by Dick Brass*, who was a vice president at Microsoft from 1997 to 2004. He wrote the article on the occasion of Apple’s release last week of the iPad, a tablet computer. Many people are probably unaware that Microsoft has been advocating tablet computing for about ten years. Dick Brass was the guy in charge of tablet computing at Microsoft, so it’s fascinating to read his account of why Microsoft failed with their tablet PC, with a ten-year head start over Apple. (Of course, we don’t yet know whether Apple will also fail or not…but Apple has certainly got far more publicity in one week than Microsoft has in ten years.)

According to Dick Brass, it’s bigger than just the tablet computer–the real issue is a culture and organizational structure at Microsoft that repeatedly blocks innovation. Brass gives a second example to prove his point: he also turns out to have been in charge of an e-book project at Microsoft, also ten years ago and thus far ahead of Amazon’s Kindle.

Well, you might say “if Dick Brass failed twice, then maybe the problem is Dick Brass.” I don’t know enough about Microsoft to evaluate whether his account is the right one or is self-serving, but it has the ring of truth. After all, his projects aren’t the only ones at Microsoft that have failed to generate innovation–it’s widely known in the industry that Microsoft is quite bad at innovation. They report record earnings each year, but the money all comes from the Windows operating system and the Office productivity suite: products that are about 20 years old. Almost all of their new products come from their acquisitions of other companies that came up with the innovations.

Brass writes “Microsoft has become a clumsy, uncompetitive innovator.” And that it’s not a cool place to work; “There has been a steady exit of its best and brightest.” What happened? “Microsoft never developed a true system for innovation…Despite having one of the largest and best corporate laboratories in the world.”

How did the Tablet PC get blocked? “The vice president in charge of Office at the time decided he didn’t like the concept…he refused to modify the popular Office applications to work properly with the tablet….so even though our tablet had the enthusiastic support of top management and had cost hundreds of millions to develop, it was essentially allowed to be sabotaged.” And last year when everyone knew Apple was about to release a tablet computer, Microsoft eliminated their tablet group.

Another part of the problem is that Microsoft focuses on software and prefers not to develop hardware. It’s not a bad strategy because software is extremely profitable, and hardware is much riskier. But this sharp divide makes it harder to develop “beautifully designed products” like the iPhone–these depend on the new discipline of “design thinking” (formerly known as “concurrent engineering”).

Brass’s conclusion? “Unless it regains its creative spark, it’s an open question whether it has much of a future.”

*New York Times, Thursday Feb. 4, 2010, p. A25