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Setting Optimism Into Force As A Creative Source And Strategy For Innovation

The Alchemy of Organizational Transformation Underway at Microsoft

A zen story goes:

“Suzuki Roshi, I’ve been listening to your lectures for years,” a student said during the question and answer time following a lecture, “but I just don’t understand. Could you just please put it in a nutshell? Can you reduce Buddhism to one phrase?”

Everyone laughed. Suzuki laughed.

“Everything changes,” he said. Then he asked for another question.

(As told on a Zen Buddhist blog, Buddhaimonia)

The essential message is that life and all other things are impermanent. And therefore it’s not about letting go, it’s really about not grasping or getting attached in the first place.

In his book, “Hit Refresh: The Quest to Rediscover Microsoft’s Soul and Imagine a Better Future for Everyone”, Satya Nadella refers to this lesson of impermanence that he first learned from Buddha’s teachings relating it to his son, Zain’s condition:

“I distinctly remember how much the ‘permanence’ of Zain’s condition bothered me in the early years of his life. However, things are always changing. If you could understand impermanence deeply, you would develop more equanimity. You would not get too excited about either the ups or downs of life. And only then would you be ready to develop that deeper sense of empathy and compassion for everything around you. The computer scientist in me loved this compact instruction set for life.” 9

However if we contemplate a bit deeper we can see certain steps implicit in this compact instruction set for life.

We need to live staying aware of the ever-changing nature of reality and appreciate the present moment.
If impermanence is the nature of life and all things then the present becomes all important. If the present is all important, living and acting to the fullest of one’s capacities in the present becomes all important. As we live and act to the fullest of our capacities in the present, being positive in one’s attitude and approach becomes a natural corollary. Being positive and optimistic and being empathetic and compassionate are integrally connected attitudes and orientations as without being empathetic and compassionate to oneself and others one cannot be fully positive and optimistic and vice versa.

The spirit of optimism and an orientation for innovation are complementary to each other and together they put one always at the forefront of cutting edge advancements as one can see in the case of Satya in the course of his 25 years’ journey at Microsoft.

As Bill Gates puts it in his foreword to ‘Hit Refresh’, from working on Microsoft’s server software to moving over to run the company’s efforts to build a world-class search engine; from transitioning away from a purely windows-centric approach to adopting a bold new mission for the company, making big bets on a few key technologies like artificial intelligence and cloud computing, Satya has been part of constant conversation reaching out to customers, top researchers and executives.

Bill Gates himself is well-known for his optimistic and innovative outlook on life. It’s only such an outlook on life that can help one connect the vast expanse of human life from one horizon to another and repose hope in innovation to reduce the world’s worst inequities on which Gates Foundation is focused to work. Bill cites three instances which bring out the motivating force of optimism and innovation enabling a leadership vision that cuts across all boundaries and divisions to aim at larger human and global good:

*Digital tracking tools and genetic sequencing are about to eradicate polio which is going to be just the second human disease ever wiped out.

*In Kenya, Tanzania, and other countries, digital money is letting low-income users save, borrow and transfer funds like never before.

*In classrooms across the United States, personalized-learning software allows students to move at their own pace and zero in on the skills they most need to improve.

As Bill puts it, “We should all be optimistic about what is to come. The world is getting better, and progress is coming faster than ever.”

This article emphasizes that optimism is the right stance we should all take and attempts to bring out how we can all become active and enthusiastic partners in this rapid progress of our world and society if we knew how to set optimism into force as a creative source and strategy for innovation.

This is not only important but urgent and indispensable to do as it truly helps us bridge up the gap between our passion to work on our choicest goals and our vision of the destination that we set out to reach.

“Hit Refresh”, as Bill Gates puts it, “is a thoughtful guide to an exciting, challenging future.” There are many lessons which are explicit enough to learn as we go through the book but there are certain implicit ones that are far more significant to work out in greater details for other people and organizations to benefit from especially in regard to optimism and innovation.

This article aims to bring out how Optimism can be set into force as a Creative Source and Strategy for Innovation keeping a focus on the Alchemy of Organizational Transformation Underway at Microsoft as described by Satya in ‘Hit Refresh’.

The basic proposition of the article is that passion is not complete until one is able to channelize its force into one’s whole being. Compassion helps us break all the barriers within and optimism helps us build up novel pathways for its flow towards the vision and the achievement of one’s goals.

Despite being passionate for one’s vision and goals, frustration of life energies is possible in the course of one’s journey towards long term vision and goals and this naturally results in the onset of negative and depressive tendencies.

What comes to one’s help in such a state of affairs is the force of compassion. If we look at it deep enough, compassion is in fact a profoundly positive outlook on life, people, circumstances including oneself in their totality and complexity surpassing all egoic barriers.

In fact, it’s the triune force of passion, compassion and optimism which is the forceful combination that leads us on the sure course to accomplishment of a long term vision and goal. It is this efficacious combination that constantly engages one in a continually positive and innovative outlook and results in real, meaningful innovations.

If we look at it in consciousness perspective, a true orientation for optimism involves passion, purpose and positive orientation. Passion for doing something challenging provides the necessary thrust which sets optimism into force, purpose provides sense of direction and a positive orientation is the very heart and soul of optimism.

Optimism involves passion because without the energy passion brings to it optimism is impotent. There are people who feel positive about something challenging attainable but without the energy of passion that positive orientation is of little force and therefore of no value. Passion adds energy to a positive inclination and turns it into real optimism. Sense of purpose sets the force of optimism flow into desired direction.

But for optimism to become thorough and a real promising proposition compassion and innovation are indispensable. Lack of compassion for oneself and others cuts at the very roots of optimism and without an innovative outlook and approach optimism is not forward looking and therefore no true optimism.

Thus passion, purpose, positive orientation, a compassionate attitude and an innovative outlook and approach are the very heart and soul which bring optimism alive and set it into force.

With optimism thus set into consummate force not only great innovations become possible, organizational transformation also becomes a reality and a concomitant process and phenomenon.

If we look at the Microsoft story unfolding under the leadership of Satya Nadella in this perspective it becomes more meaningful and applicable across organizations.

The first chapter of the book opens on the note which points out the profound passion the organization’s people carry:

“I joined Microsoft in 1992 because I wanted to work for a company filled with people who believed they were on a mission to change the world.” 1

The sense of purpose that inspired its founders Bill and Paul was “democratizing leading-edge computer technology”.

As Satya takes over the leadership of the company he is aware of his organization stuck with certain negative tendencies despite the passion they have for their work as he puts it that “after years of outdistancing all of our competitors, something was changing—and not for the better. Innovation was being replaced by bureaucracy. Teamwork was being replaced by internal politics. We were falling behind.”1

At another place in the book he reiterates, “The company was sick. Employees were tired. They were frustrated. They were fed up with losing and falling behind despite their grand plans and great ideas. They came to Microsoft with big dreams, but it felt like all they really did was deal with upper management, execute training processes, and bicker in meetings…” 66

The all important issue with an apparent way out was, “how to inspire this disheartened group of brilliant people… Job one was to build hope. This was day one of our transformation… I knew it must start from within.” 67

Satya is deeply positive and clearly feels that if they could together put the power of empathy to work the process of organizational transformation could set in. To put it in his own words, “while I admired every member of our team, I felt that we needed to deepen our understanding of one another—to delve into what really makes each of us tick…and connect our personal philosophies to our jobs as leaders of the company. I knew that if we dropped those proverbial guns and channeled that collective IQ and energy into a refreshed mission, we could get back to the dream that first inspired Bill and Paul….democratizing leading-edge computer technology.” 4

It’s worthwhile studying how the force of compassion melts the hard inner psychological barriers and the force of optimism forges new harmony among them.

Satya’s Senior Leadership Team presents itself for a deep psychological experiment wherein it practices:

* Suspending judgment and staying in the moment.

* Sharing personal passions and philosophies.

* Reflecting on who they are both in home life and at work.

* Connecting their work persona with their life persona.

If we look at the dynamics of consciousness at work here, suspending judgment implies suspending the judgmental mode and frame of mind in which we are usually caught. Our likes and dislikes, resentments and contentments are the shades of this mode of mind in which our life energies remain hooked. Staying in the moment helps us unhook ourselves from this narrow frame. Sharing personal passions and philosophies as Satya’s team does helps break the self-built barriers between fellow team members. Reflecting on who they are both in home life and at work helps them connect themselves more totally within. Thus a total sense of connectedness, inwardly and outwardly, a sense of wholeness helps them feel total and whole. It is this sense of totality and wholeness resulting in a holistic outlook which lies at the heart of compassion.

Satya is aware of this sense of totality and wholeness which they are able to bring about and which has to be put to work to take their organization ahead:

“At the end of the day, we all came to the same stark realization: No one leader, no one group, and no one CEO would be the hero of Microsoft’s renewal. If there was to be a renewal, it would take all of us and all parts of each of us. Cultural transformation would be slow and trying before it would be rewarding.” 11

If we trace the essentials of these processes they involve:

*Getting deep down to the inner core of one’s being

*Applying the force of Totality

*Applying the force of compassion

*Connecting Personal Passion with the Organization’s Vision

*Connecting Organization’s Vision with some larger global good

Thus compassion has the power to set optimism into force to build up novel pathways for the flow of passion and the tremendous energy involved in it towards the long term vision and goals.

This is how Satya connects his life persona to his work persona:

“My son’s condition requires that I draw daily upon the very same passion for ideas and empathy that I learned from my parents. And I do this both at home and at work. Whether I am meeting with people in Latin America, the Middle East, or one of the inner cities of America, I am always searching to understand people’s thoughts, feelings, and ideas. Being an empathetic father, and bringing that desire to discover what is at the core, makes me a better leader.” 42

“…life’s experience has helped me build a growing sense of empathy for an ever-widening circle of people… My passion is to put empathy at the center of everything I pursue…from the products we launch, to the new markets we enter, to the employees, customers, and partners we work with.” 9-10

This is how Satya connects Personal Passion with the Organization’s Vision of democratizing leading edge computer technology:

“…it is impossible to be an empathetic leader sitting in an office behind a computer screen all day. An empathetic leader needs to be out in the world, meeting people where they live and seeing how the technology we create affects their daily activities.” 42

This is how a change in vision in computing technologies from PC first and phone first to mobile first and cloud first has been emerging:

“So many people around the world today depend on mobile and cloud technologies without knowing it. Hospitals, schools, businesses, and researchers rely on what is referred to as the ‘public cloud’—an array of large scale privacy-protected computers and data services accessible over a public network.

Cloud computing makes it possible to analyze vast quantities of data to produce specific insights and intelligence, converting guesswork and speculation into predictive power. It has the power to transform lives, companies and societies.” 42

An Organizational Vision thus deeply rooted in ‘innovation wedded with compassion’ inherently connects with larger global good and goes on to shape its leadership vision across its global operations. ‘Hit Refresh’ reveals the essential alchemy at work at Microsoft through its leadership vision:

“Traveling the globe as CEO, I’ve seen example after example of this interplay between empathy and technology.” 42

It’s a leadership vision that builds up and sees through the sweeping flow of transformation in education:

“Both in the state where I was born and the state in which I now live, schools use the power of cloud computing to analyze large amounts of data to uncover insights that can improve dropout rates.

In Andhra Pradesh in India, and in Tacoma, Washington, too many kids drop out of school. The problem is lack of resources, not lack of ambition.

Cloud technology is helping improve outcomes for kids and families as intelligence from cloud data is now predicting which students are more likely to drop out of school so that resources can be focused on providing them the help they need.” 43

It’s a leadership vision that revels in the overwhelming wave of technology empowering the lower economic strata in the global society and setting them free from the deadly environmental ambience born of penury:

“Thanks to mobile and cloud technologies, a startup in Kenya has built a solar grid that people living on less than two dollars a day can lease to have safe, low-cost lighting and efficient cookstoves, replacing polluting and dangerous kerosene power. It’s an ingenious plan because the startup can effectively create a credit rating, a byproduct of the service, which, for the first time, gives these Kenyans access to capital.

This innovative mobile phone pay system enables customers living in Kenya’s sprawling slums to make forty-cent daily payments for solar light, which in turn generates data that establishes a credit history to finance other needs.” 43

It’s a leadership vision that equipped with the mobile and cloud technologies weighs its might against the natural catastrophes in their sweeping force and intensities for their quick prediction and prevention:

“A university in Greece, leveraging cloud data, is working with firefighters in that country to predict and prevent massive wildfires like the one in 2007 that killed eighty-four people and burned 670,000 acres.

Firefighters are now armed with intelligence on the rate of the fire’s speed and intensity, movement of the perimeter, proximity to water supply, and microclimate weather forecasts from remote sensors, enabling them to catch fires early, saving lives and property.” 43

“And in Nepal, after the devastating earthquake there in April 2015, disaster relief workers from the United Nations used the public cloud to collect and analyze massive amounts of data about schools, hospitals, and homes to speed up access to compensatory entitlements, relief packages, and other assistance.” 44

It’s a leadership vision that is deep in love and compassion for children ardently helping them overcome hurdles in learning and growth:

“In Sweden, researchers are using cloud technologies to ensure that children are screened earlier and more accurately for dyslexia, a reading disorder that impacts educational outcomes for millions.

Eye movement data analyzed at schools today can be compared with a data set from those diagnosed with dyslexia thirty years ago.

Diagnostic accuracy rates have increased from 70 to 95 percent, and the time to get a diagnosis has decreased from three years to three minutes. This means students, parents, and schools are prepared earlier and struggle less.” 44

It’s a leadership vision that looks into the potential of novel technologies to narrow down the disastrous gaps that have already been created between (mis)use of technology and global well being:

“In Japan, crowd-sourced data collected from hundreds of sensors nationwide helped the public monitor radiation from the Fukushima nuclear plant to reduce risks to food quality and transportation. The 13 million measurements from five hundred remote sensors generated a heat map that alerted authorities to threats to local rice production.” 44

Minimal changes in life incremental in nature are not that difficult to bring about but when it comes to changing planes or shifting paradigms one needs profound passion, thorough optimism and consummate compassion. It is such changes, transformative in nature that Satya is referring to. It’s essentially a shift of vision in computing technologies from PC first and Phone first to mobile first and cloud first, a change that amounts to a paradigm shift that lies at the base of these transformative changes.

Thus compassion has the power to set optimism into force to build up novel pathways for the flow of passion and the tremendous energy involved in it towards the long term vision and goals.

The power to connect the inner potential with external possibilities comes from optimism. Passion imparts us the impetus, compassion clears the hurdles and optimism sets open the pathways to traverse the course from vision to its material realization.

Passion not only provides the necessary force but also a sense of purpose which brings with it a sense of direction. Compassion helps demolish the egoic barriers which are quite naturally associated with passion as rose bushes do with the beautiful flowers. It’s the nature of passion to have its own way often at the expense of its owner as fire in disproportionate measures and intensities may consume the substance it’s been set to melt or refine. Compassion helps demolish the barriers not only psychological but also material as it helps passion reach its inherent vision and culminate into the innovation its insights compel it to achieve and attain.

Satya gets to the core of the essence and power of empathy and compassion and goes on to weave them into the very approach of his leadership in all its aspects.

At Microsoft, compassion helps expand the psychological base for organizational transformation and growth. Their organizational turf has the profound vital propensities of the passion involved in their vision to:

* work to change the world.
* build digital platforms on which individuals and organizations can build their dreams and businesses.
* enhance and enrich human life and living experience with artificial intelligence aids.
* enhance and enrich human experience discovering novel dimensions with mixed reality.
* find more ways to enrich human life and experience with emerging AI technologies and mixed reality.

Important to remember that it’s only in a psychological turf strong and rich to its core with the intensity and integrity of passion that the flowers of innovation can blossom with multifaceted aura and multidirectional fragrance of compassion. It’s a beautiful integration of the faculties of mind and heart:

“Ideas excite me. Empathy grounds and centers me.” 6

When optimism is thus set into consummate force with the power of compassion at its core, it leads to great innovations.

(Citations with page numbers are from ‘Hit Refresh’.)

DR. SURENDRA SONI

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