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Microsoft @ Speed of Design Thinking

By | Dr Pavan Soni | IIM-B Innovation Evangelist

Design Thinking (DT) is fast becoming a favorite for enterprises and startups, alike, to solve complex, ambiguous problems in a systematic manner. While I recently reasoned how DT eludes Indians, there seems to be one team that defies the logic- Microsoft India. Imagine 800 of the brightest of the Microsoft employees from across India putting their heads, hearts and hands together to solve some of the most urgent and important problems around growth, market leadership and organizational vitality, in a setting which is unprecedented. Spice this up with Zumba, a live band, and top it up with a Beer Yoga!

Team stepping up to a Zumba session

The setting was of the Microsoft Sparkathon, an annual strategy retreat for the business development folks. I was one of the coaches for the Sparkathon, modeled around Design Thinking methodology, and championed by QAI’s new venture- QGLUE. In what follows is my reflection of arguably the largest experiment in India, till date, on applying Design Thinking to move the brightest to solve the toughest problems in shortest possible time.

The participants: Humility personified

Let’s begin with some statistics.

631 Microsoft India employees spread across 65 teams, anchored around ten Priority Areas, and assisted by 50 facilitators from Microsoft and another 20 from team QGLUE.

There were 20 coaches from QAI and associate partners whose job was to rally the teams, amid all the enthusiasm and chaos, to generate compelling ideas to address the priorities laid out by the leadership team of Microsoft India. All this in less than five hours!

What really helped was the sharpness with which the Priority Areas and the problems and objectives were defined. Right from customer acquisition to building a robust workforce, all critical-to-business domains were discussed. I must say that the discussions were fact-based, incisive, and very much with a sharp intent to grow, and not just to be.

Another observation was on the employees. This was my maiden interaction with Microsoft talent in India, let alone at this scale.

What stuck me was the rare combination of competence and humility. The folks were as incisive as they were grounded.

Above, leaders at Microsoft engaging the Sparkathon teams

And, of course, the leadership team was right there to support and monitor the teams. Let’s not get fooled by the dance, and music and the color- Microsoft meant business!

I could see the Priority Owners and the leadership team going around various groups, inquiring about their understanding of the problems, and listening to their solutions with a curious intent. An intent to solve problems in a collective, systematic manner. The job of team QGLUE was to facilitate the discussion with adherence to the principles of DT and adaptability to the context.

The arena: Boundless energy

The arena had to do justice to the magnitude of the endeavor. We were staring at over 800 people under a single roof with a very clear mandate- solve problems creatively in the shortest possible time.

The arena, buzzing with over 800 enthusiasts and performers.

Think of a huge hall, almost 100,000 sq. ft., with over ten separate podiums, occupying over 60 teams, well spaced out and provided with adequate arsenals to ‘spark’ the afternoon. And then you have a live-band in one corner, a set of dancers right in the middle of the arena, and the facilitator- Ajay Batra.

I entered the arena with a nervous energy and got soaked in the palpable enthusiasm to be left completely exhausted by 6 PM, before I was heading to the airport.

A lot of planning and thinking must have gone through by both team Microsoft India and QAI to put the setting and pull this never-before event, at scale.

The approach: Managed chaos

With the size that we had, the sheer number of participants, and the intoxicants in place, it’s a sure recipe of chaos, lest we can put some order in place that channelizes the energies to bring about remarkable outcomes, well within the constraints of time and leadership bandwidth.

Above, the handbooks co-designed by Microsoft India and team QGLUE

That’s precisely what the duo of David Issac and Navyug Mohnot had to create- a framework of thinking and acting, in groups. The outcome was a very well designed and comprehensive Design Thinking Handbook, titled ‘Scaling a Culture of Innovation‘. It took the team almost one month to prune the content, make it self-explanatory, and create the associated A1-sized charts that teams would use to populate their understanding of problems and ideas with.

The Sparkathon has three stages- DiscoveryIdeation, and Co-creation. The teams would start with a problem statement, around a priority area, then go through the techniques of discovery to redefine the problem before generating a few idea, where the most promising ones would be displayed as models, storyboards, and a two-minutes pitch.

I was teamed with David, and what an amazing person I discovered in him. A rare combination of empathy, big picture thinking coupled with attention to details, and being hands-on– the essentials of a Design Thinker!

The outcome: Powerful narratives

If one would get lost in the intensity of the talent, all around, and the pace of the proceedings, the caution is that Microsoft’s leaders were GLUED (pun intended) onto how well have people understood the problems and generated novel, workable solutions.

The leadership team went around the teams to get a sense of the ideas- presented in several creative ways, ranging from skits to 3D models, and storyboards, amongst others. I could see a genuine sense of problem solving and demonstrating workable solutions as teams were hard pressed for time and management attention.

While all this was happening, the bartender was still awaiting customers! So much for the levels of engagement and sincerity.

Above is the team QGLUE that helped navigate the Sparkathon. All credit to Navyug for putting it together.

Personally, I have learned the importance of visioning, humility, and attention to details. Once again, a big thanks goes to Navyug for putting this exceptional team together. The common sentiment running amongst the 20 coaches and a similar number of core team members was self-confidence. Architects, designers, educationalists, engineers, practitioners, entrepreneurs, and seasoned employees, et al., — all pooled in to create history.

Republished with permission and originally published at Dr. Pavan Soni’s LinkedIn

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