42projects is an initiative across several teams at Microsoft to innovate in the way we manage by focusing on building trust, using games to increase productivity, and encouraging grassroots innovation through empowerment and management capabilities.
Douglas Adams, in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, said 42 was “the answer to life, the universe, and everything." It was also the uniform number of Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball, it’s the angle at which a rainbow appears and 42 in ASCII is the asterisk. The key point is that the number 42 represents change and significance in many different ways. Our 42projects initiative is meant to represent change in the way we manage. As significant generational differences in talent and communication-styles influence the workplace through the increasing participation of Gen X\Y\Millennial employees, we must experiment with new ways of managing. 42projects is meant to give those experiments a single “brand”, under which we can explore new ideas, share best practices, and advance our collective learning.
We all know that the demographics of the workforce are changing. A large percentage of the workforce today was raised either by a family where both parents worked outside the home or by a single parent. Those situations usually require pre-school, after school care, and teenage latch-key years—leading to an increase in self-sufficiency, self-direction, and self-motivation skills for children raised in these situations. Globalization also brings diversity and a new perspective into the workforce. Changes in information availability via the internet, education, communication, and technology have influenced workers today much differently than employees of previous generations. In an era of real time communication and instantaneous information, this generation has watched first hand as presidents, parents, sports heroes—even TV evangelists—fall victim to human weaknesses, and they don’t have the level of trust in leadership that previous generations had. In 2006, at the beginning of the Windows 7 project cycle, we conducted a series of one-on-one meetings with members of the Windows Security Test team. One of the interesting observations we took away from these meetings was the number of individuals with advanced education or experience. They talked about big ideas, past experience, enthusiasm and excitement to bring their background, hobbies, interests, and experience to the job. They wanted to work on cool, cutting-edge projects, and to be recognized for their work by peers, family and friends. And if such projects aren’t provided in the workplace, many would choose to find them in online communities and work on them—for free—in their spare time. We realized we needed to expand our business processes to better accommodate this broad array of talent and interests. The availability of information and self-direction opens up new possibilities for employee involvement. It's not just senior folks who have all the ideas. We wanted to find a way that would allow everyone to follow their passion and contribute in ways beyond their level of “traditional” experience. To use an extreme example, if someone is a Security expert and is also passionate about user interface design, instead of going home and working on UI design for a personal web site in their spare time, can they instead find someone doing a side project at work who needs volunteer help with UI design? Just because the day job requires a certain set of core skills doesn’t mean those are the only skills they have—or the only ones they want to develop – how could we bring some of this energy that people have around personal development in areas they love back inside the walls of the workplace? Instead of going home and thinking about the next big thing—could they do that work at the office?—and connect with others who might share a similar passion? We knew that our only option was to address this at the management level—it’s not something that individuals would feel comfortable pursuing on their own. Most organizations would react to an employee proposal with something like—“if you have spare time to pursue UI design, then either go be a designer full time—or drop that notion and do more work on your day job." But people will find the time to pursue their own interests—and find opportunity outside work to explore and grow. In this example, working on UI design is “fun”, it’s relaxing, it’s a break. That time would never be applied to the ‘regular work’ anyway, no matter how much regular work there is. People will always make time to pursue their passions and their personal interests. We wanted our managers to create a climate where these pursuits were not only allowed, they are supported and encouraged.
In June 2006, we started to look at what we could change, organizationally, to better engage these relatively new employees with diverse experience and interest in contributing in areas where they weren’t necessarily experts. We looked, for example, at 15% or 20% time, made famous by 3M or Google, respectively—and yet, the ebb and flow of the project cycle prevented the deployment of a single holistic program across the entire organization. At that time, we encountered the paper “Well-being and Trust in the Workplace” from Helliwell and Huang, that showed that a 10% increase in organizational trust equated to a 36% pay raise as measured by job satisfaction. We had seen the role of trust in creative and innovative organizations. Behaviors like “freedom to fail”, risk-taking, and ability to suggest new ideas, empowerment, creative freedom, flexibility, and agility—all of these actions are rooted in trust. As we discussed how these activities would address our generational work style challenges, we agreed that creating a high trust environment on the team might invite these behaviors. While we agreed that a climate of high trust would have a positive impact, we had serious questions about how to take action. We knew we couldn’t simply send a memo to the team inviting them to “trust us”. At this stage, trust was a brand new, awkward, and potentially emotional topic. How could we convince people that trust was a good thing to actually spend their time on? No one disagreed with the notion that more trust was better than less, but to actually take time away from “real work” to build trust was a dubious proposal. We had already established a weekly forum where we bought pizza and invited team members to come and share—ideas, projects, proposals, and research. So we used one of these “pizza meetings” to brainstorm the list of behaviors that influence trust. Participants came up with about 150 trust-influencing behaviors (http://www.defectprevention.org/PairsLB.aspx?group=31a3675c-bbb3-4b91-9f...). At the end of the meeting, when people returned to their regular jobs, there was very little excitement—no one felt like we had just rocked the world. They were happy that we paid for their meal—and questioned whether we could use that time more effectively on more tangible activities. We continued the trust building behaviors we were already doing, stopped doing the things that eroded trust, and start working towards the new behaviors that were identified. We talked about trust constantly—aspiring to build the level of trust on the team—without knowing how—nor how we could measure progress. So we fumbled through talking awkwardly about fuzzy stuff—actions and behaviors that influence trust—and tried hard to measure progress—with little success. As a metrics driven organization, we wanted to know the top 2-3 things to do—and then to go execute on them. But this was different—because the behaviors were contextual and relationship-based. While “Be transparent” was important in some situations, “integrity” was important in others. To create some excitement, we built a simple game to help order or rank the behaviors (http://www.defectprevention.org/trust). The game reinforced the notion that the behaviors were relationship-based and contextual and there was no simple formula for success—so we built a wiki to enable group collaboration around a “trust playbook." As an example, one of our behaviors was “Praise Publicly, Correct Privately.” Part of the wiki entry looks like this: Praise publicly, correct privately "Praise in public; criticize in private." – Vince Lombardi Everyone makes mistakes, but that doesn't mean we like it. We like it even less when their mistakes are pointed out to others. To build trust with others, speak highly of them in public. This does not have to be artificial, but wait for an opportunity when someone deserves praise and tell people about the accomplishment. If they make a mistake tell them privately so they have the opportunity to correct it. Reinforcing this practice will help to build trust and encourage experimentation and risk taking. If people realize that mistakes will be corrected privately, they will be more likely to stretch themselves, worrying less than if their errors were broadcast and scrutinized in public. People knew that building trust was a focus of the managers on the team– and the effort to list out behaviors that influenced trust gave people an excuse—or a language or framework to call out things that they normally wouldn’t have talked about. So, for example, one person identified “show sincere appreciation for work done" —and with that, a first level people manager could now feel comfortable congratulating someone on an accomplishment. They might send email to the person and add a senior manager or director to the email—knowing that they wouldn’t be over-stepping their bounds—and, they could point to the wiki and the list of behaviors to say, “I was just following this guidance." The constant reminders of the goal to build trust brought an awareness that started to change behavior. We did not integrate 42projects into our performance review process, but deliberately kept it separate. This may sound puzzling, but we felt that we were trying to encourage a lot more than we had the ability—or the budget—to reward. We wanted to encourage “organizational citizenship”. Some, but not all, of these achievements were going to be reflected in work that we were being paid for in Windows Security tasks—our “in-role behaviors”—and those achievements would be part of the annual performance evaluation. We had no special funding or additional budget for 42projects. It was a completely volunteer effort—and not every member of the team wanted to work on games, or trust, or management innovation—and that was OK. If people wanted to focus on their Security work—which was our ultimate business goal—then that work should be where the organizational rewards should be distributed. The additional 42projects work was optional and voluntary—and while we felt, and witnessed, that this would lead to more productive Security work, it was an experiment—ans our performance evaluation rewards budget should be allocated in line with achievements related to our Security business goals. The belief, and our subsequent experience, was that a culture of trust, freedom, and collaborative play would lead to innovation in how we manage, innovation in how we do our jobs, and a positive impact on our tradition business metrics. We used productivity games – games built on top of the work we do – to encourage fun, competition, engagement. We had a small book club, that would share latest management and innovation related titles. And, when we finished up the Windows 7 project, we saw our traditional productivity metrics rise.
Tradeoff with “real job” The biggest challenge we had was how to rationalize the time invested in 42projects against the “real job”. This was a question to answer for upper management as well as for individuals on the team. Salaried employees are expected to work a certain number of hours in the week. Project schedules are based on that. There is always more work to do – schedules are tight and the idea of “free time” is foreign in most organizations. However, there are also hobbies, recreational activities, and non-work interests that people use their discretionary time to incorporate into their lives. As mentioned above, people want to be recognized for their work on cool, cutting-edge projects and will find them on their own. For many folks, we found that these projects, hobbies, and personal growth investments involve technology. So, in our work, a computer engineer who writes poetry as a hobby is different than one who writes code to learn a new programming language in their spare time. We wanted to leverage that discretionary self-improvement investment that people make and support it for the benefit of the employee and the organization. As team members started to see the support for self-directed projects and personal development, the innovative ideas started to surface and it got easier for people to rationalize their personal investment and build momentum. Initially, it was a challenge to convince people that they were allowed to spend their work time this way. For individuals, it took a few months to convince them that this initiative could help them develop and positively impact their feature area, and would help them showcase their talents. We had solid business metrics that already measured our productivity and we kept a close watch on them. Since we had good measures, we could leave the decision as to whether to participate up to the individual – this program was focused on discretionary time – in three distinct ways: 1) Build trust to empower people to give them more discretion and choice over how to prioritize their efforts and their time towards the product. 2) Create a program where people could explore applying their “hobbies” or personal development goals to their regular work. 3) Create a forum for sharing best practices and lessons learned. As an example, if someone has a personal goal to learn a new programming language, they might work a full week at their regular job, then go home and do programming exercises to learn. 42projects sought to bring this time investment and integrate it into the workplace – instead of going home to learn, people can spend time during the day, with others pursuing similar goals, learning the new language. They are now able to learn more quickly – and have access to better resources – and they can apply their learning to the regular job more quickly. They might be at their desks for a longer time, but feel better because they are satisfying my personal goals at the same time. As a team, we didn’t need any special permission to carry out this initiative, because we had no special budget, and the traditional business metrics never wavered – we continued to meet objectives throughout the life of the project – and as skills, and retention rates, started to improve, our metrics improved as well. Measuring progress This remains the biggest challenge: How to measure concepts like trust, innovation and “fun” and how they impact organizational productivity? We believed that investments in a culture that enables people to innovate in the way they do their jobs – would pay off in productivity improvements. The worry was whether those productivity advances show up in established productivity metrics, and could we prove that investments in soft skills such as trust have contributed to that result? “Trust is like freedom and air” – you know when you run out, but you never know how much you have. We are currently exploring some work on ROI-based measures using focus groups and stochastic modeling. Length of time to see impact of change Everyone expects immediate results. When you decide to make a change, and are sincere about it – you expect everyone to “get it” right away – but we realized that predictability is a big factor in building trust, and is something that must be demonstrated over time. Building trust and truly realizing the benefits of a high-trust culture don’t happen overnight. People need to know they can count on the sincerity, authenticity, and integrity of their leaders. That can’t be done via memo – or “all hands” meeting – it requires transparency and consistency over time. For us, it took a couple years to really see signs of progress – and even that wasn’t universal. There are lots of tactical approaches, techniques, and ways to empower individuals, and we’re sure there are things we could have done better, but our belief is that it takes a long time to earn credibility. Earning trust is like climbing a mountain, progress is earned step by step, but it can take only a small misstep to lose what has been gained. Eroding behaviors from outside our organization Early on, one of our teams scored very low on “trust” scores in an employee survey. The result was puzzling because this team was fully engaged in building trust. What we came to realize through interviews and analyzing the survey results was, unlike the other teams, this group had a clear definition of trust and with real examples of trust influencing behaviors. With this awareness, the team could identify trust eroding behavior both inside and outside their organization and this led to the low trust scores on the survey. Another key challenge is what to do when one team aspires to build trust, but trust-eroding behavior is taking place all around them that is out of their control
Employee Retention Our retention numbers were 20% to 50% higher than our historical numbers, and many of our counterpart teams. In our work, where technical knowledge is paramount, experience counts. So, retaining high performers helps our business, and while we can’t draw a direct tie between this program and our retention success, we can say, anecdotally, that people cite 42projects as a reason they enjoyed being on the team. Recruiting People appreciate having input and being empowered. 42projects, and the talk about our use of games at work – or how we aspire to create a climate of high trust –resonates well with recruits and we won competition for talent. This created a virtuous circle – talented, happy people contribute great ideas, and new thinking attracts new recruits. Employee Morale We like to measure employee morale through the laughter in the hallways. If people are laughing at work, then they are showing up – and they are happy. Everyone tries to hire the best person for the job, and when that person is happy, it helps them be productive and deliver great results. Our belief is that the 42Projects initiative – and the freedom it provides – contributes to a higher level of employee morale and eventually higher productivity and results for our team. Productivity We saw between a 10% to 60% improvement in productivity, as measured by a number of different metrics - against historical performance and against peer organizations. It’s hard to draw a direct relationship between productivity measures and work on trust, games, empowerment, and innovation – we can say anecdotally that 42projects was the biggest thing we were doing differently than past projects or our peers. Innovation When talented, qualified people are given time to solve problems and implement solutions, they will deliver. While most of our examples are focused on internal business processes, innovations like the Language Quality Game are examples of how good ideas can gather momentum and jump organizational boundaries if people are given the freedom to pursue them. We saw dozens of innovative new projects – from diagnostic tools to quality improvement techniques – stemming from experiments, best-practice sharing, and improved skills across the team. Collaboration Games and trust build relationships and facilitate improved collaboration. When people play together, they also work better together. If we give people the opportunity to experiment through play, they will learn how to depend on the strengths and skills of other people to augment their own. We have found that this leads to a more collaborative and high trust environment.
You don’t need a special budget A decision to trust costs nothing. We had no special budget. We bought pizza for the team, but that was it. No extensive training budget or off-site. We used stickies and markers to identify trust behaviors. Everyone volunteered and did a little bit more towards citizenship behaviors, but there was no funding for 42projects. People support grassroots change Every employee has an opinion on how their job or workplace could be improved. It’s easy to build a following and garner ideas from the crowd. It’s likely that no one – or very few – will actually work towards improvements – but most will gladly share their opinion. Discussion can help to build momentum. Just do it It’s more important to execute than to speculate, strategize, or hypothesize – even (especially) if you’re wrong. Don’t write proposals and expect a higher authority to “bless” your approach – again, most people don’t have the time to care – just do it. Play is fun Games and play give you a chance to experiment with new ideas that don’t threaten existing methodologies or deep-rooted corporate culture. Be careful that you are not substituting a game score for a paycheck. Games don’t work everywhere. Management will support good intentions If your intentions are for the betterment of the company and not self-serving, people will support you – even if your execution or influence is flawed. Consistency of intent is a key factor in building trust and support for what you are doing. Be prepared to apologize One of the tenants of 42Projects is to try things and support the freedom to fail. If an improvement seems like a good idea, then give it a go and experiment. That’s how people can learn what works and what doesn’t. As long as you are logical and smart about what you try, it will be easier to defend if there is a problem. Apologize if necessary, but continue to experiment. Success breeds success If you have success, tell your story far and wide. If you have a little success, people will gravitate towards a good story, and will offer to align themselves. This helps to build momentum. Evangelize If you think you are doing good work, share it broadly and evangelize your work. If it’s not, you’ll get great feedback on what doesn’t work – and if it is worthwhile, you’ll teach others - a win-win. Patience is definitely required An initiative like 42Projects and building trust in an organization takes time and persistence. Not only does it require patience, but when the level of energy starts to dip an organizational advocate and cheerleader can be helpful to re-energize the effort. As with many worthwhile improvement efforts, without that reinforcement, people may become complacent over time and the initiative can lose its momentum. Track data closely At some point, you will want to show measurable progress – so the sooner you can rely on valued and supported metrics, the better. Pay close attention to traditional metrics. Share and collaborate Be open and honest – about success and failure – and learn from others. The best way to receive valuable advice and learn from others is to share openly and be receptive to suggestions, regardless of where they come from. Assuming you have the formula for success guarantees failure. No one cares—until they do—and when they do, they likely won’t help The rich and famous sometimes say, “it took 20 years to become an overnight success” – the same thing is true here. As much as you care about bringing energy and passion to your work if other people are too busy or don’t see it the way you do – they really are not interested. Ideas are like children – everyone loves their own. If you are on the right track, at some point, people will care – and your persistence will be validated. While that probably won’t result in more help for you, it will offer validation that you are having an impact. There are no limits—ask for forgiveness People crave success – the CEO / Chairman/ BOD didn’t get there through conservatism – if you need to, ask for forgiveness, not permission. Most times, no one will care – one way or another. If they care enough to reprimand you, call that a win and apologize. Again, your intentions cannot be self-serving – you must be focused on the good of the organization. Watch your traditional business metrics. Think Big It’s important to be big and bold. And please share your learning. Thanks for reading this far!
Ross Smith, Dan Bean, Robert Musson, Robin Moeur, Joshua Williams, Mark Hanson, Lori Ada Kilty, Darren Muir, Brian Lounsberry
http://www.42projects.org "Well-being and Trust in the Workplace" http://wellbeing.econ.ubc.ca/helliwell/workingPapers.php