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Change Management: Increasing Trust at Microsoft

Four years ago, Ross Smith, then director of Microsoft’s 85-person Windows Security Test team, conducted a series of one-on-one meetings with his people. He came away deeply impressed by the talent and enthusiasm within the team but deeply distressed that his workplace didn’t come close to offering the freedom and support required for everyone to bring all of their creativity, imagination, and energy to work.

Then Smith and some colleagues stumbled upon a trove of research around the role of trust in innovative organizations. It hit them like a thunderbolt. Every quality and behavior they sought to cultivate—freedom to try new things, permission to question, the ability to see old things in a new light, support for risk taking, and a tolerance for failure—was rooted in trust. But how to create something as elusive, emotion laden, and fragile as trust?

Smith asked his group to come up with a list of behaviors that influenced trust in day-to-day work. The list reached 150 items but failed to energize the group. So Smith and his colleagues devised a simple Web-based game that walked players through a series of forced choices between trust-inducing behaviors and then compiled the collective responses to create a rank ordering of the behaviors. (To play the game yourself, visit www.defectprevention.org/trust.)

With the prioritized list as a starting point, Smith encouraged the group to collaborate on a “trust playbook” wiki. The wiki included examples and scripts for specific trust-influencing behaviors, such as “praise publicly, correct privately,” that had been highlighted as important. As simple as this process seemed, it opened up crucial awareness around the importance of feeding trust every day—and gave the team a vocabulary to “call out things we wouldn’t normally have talked about,” recalls Smith.

The playbook was just a start. Smith and his team also introduced Web-based tools for sharing information, bidding out problems, and pitching new ideas. They experimented with collaborative productivity games as a way to inject a sense of fun, improve management processes, and instill new behaviors. And they regularly reinforced the spirit of idea sharing and experimentation without fear through weekly pizza meetings, a separate forum for employees with less than two years on the job, and a book club.

What have been the results? Smith reports that the group’s retention numbers saw a 20 to 50 percent rise against historic norms and peer organizations. Productivity also spiked 10 to 60 percent. Morale, as measured by “laughter in the hallways,” soared. And the initiative has yielded a number of innovative offshoots. For example, an idea-sharing forum connected one team member who had built a prototype customer feedback game with another who was trying to use native language speakers to enhance the quality of international versions of Windows. The two collaborated to build a game in which people check and correct the phrasing and cultural nuances of translations. Across Microsoft, the Windows Language Quality Game attracted 4,600 players, who completed half a million tasks in just four months.

Although Smith has moved on to another part of Microsoft (as test director for Lync, a unified communications server product), his initiative continues to attract people from all around the company. From the outset, this humble, deliberately nebulous trust-building effort had a name—42Projects, in honor of Jackie Robinson’s uniform number, among other things—that transcended organizational boundaries.1 Regardless of the department or role of participants, they find in 42Projects a source of identity and collaborative energy that’s rare inside large corporations.

Pasted from <https://www.mckinseyquarterly.com/Strategy/Innovation/Dispatches_from_the_front_lines_of_management_innovation_2705>

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