"Form ever follows function." The architect Louis Sullivan wrote this phrase in 1898 to celebrate a new approach to construction that took its inspiration from nature—that the quality of an object should emerge, organically, from its purpose. In the first years of the 20th century, Sullivan's maxim became the guiding principle of the modernist movement, inspiring the tall steel buildings that now dominate urban skylines around the world, and transforming the world of industrial design.
In the digital and virtual age, the feel of a product we can no longer touch or hold in our hand is hard to, quite literally, get a grip on. But the motivation of "form follows function" remains just as powerful, even if its effects are not as apparent.
In recognition of the one-year anniversary of the launch of Microsoft Teams, I sat down (virtually, of course) with the principals of the group that conceived and built the platform. We spoke about an approach to collaboration that not only enabled them to go from concept to working prototype in record time but also strongly influenced the design and functionality of the finished product.
What emerged from our conversation was an impression of team creativity as a force that, with the right kind of leadership, can be nurtured and guided to profound results. The discussion revealed six principles of collaboration that inspired the Teams team:
1. Set a clear goal. Stretch with the team to reach it.
Brian MacDonald, Corporate Vice President for Teams, has led big projects. As the creator of Microsoft Outlook and Projects, he understands the complexity of developing new applications and platforms. So having a clear goal for the team was critical, especially how the product should make the customer feel while using it. "We took a deliberate goal that success should mean that groups that got onto Teams enjoyed collaborating and working together more ... [Business culture] has gone from 'work to live' to wanting to live at work, and people expect fulfillment in what they're doing. We had a belief that the tools should manifest that. This drove a lot of our decision making in the product."
"The conventional wisdom is that you set achievable goals for success. Our policy was to fearlessly set impossible goals, and miss them by 20%. There was a very good understanding between Brian and the team that that is not a failure. If we can do that we're still achieving a lot more," added Jigar Thakkar, Corporate Vice President of Engineering.
2. Think about the structure of the group. Be willing to shake things up to get results.
As the effort to develop Teams began, MacDonald took the unusual step splitting the team for a week of intensive off-site work, sending the engineering group to the Aria Resort in Las Vegas, and traveling with the vision and user experience group to a farm in Hawaii. The idea was not only to understand how today's far-flung teams work and interact but also to give each group its space and freedom to be creative.
"I had a big suite reserved at the hotel," remembered Thakkar, the leader of the Las Vegas group. "We said this is a lot of money to spend on one person, so I had four of us, me plus three engineers, staying in that room, sleeping on the beds and the sofas ... We were just going nonstop, working until late at night. And, in between, somebody maybe playing a bit of poker and then coming back into the discussion. That was how we went for four days continuously. This is something I've never done with any other group in 20 years at Microsoft."
Mira Lane, Partner Director of Design, was part of the Hawaii group. "It was a lot of fun to get out of the work environment and into a space where you were not in that mindset. I remember us having discussions about core ideas, then going away for a while and thinking about it. We knew it would evolve over time, but if the core foundation was correct then it would evolve in the right direction ... It was also important to isolate the groups so you could run quickly. Having that trust between us was so valuable that we didn't worry about what the engineers were doing."
"Vision and engineering are usually on opposite sides," said RJ Tuit, Principal Group Engineering Manager. "One of them is always saying 'I want this' or 'You can't have that,' which is a healthy thing. But having that happen too early will restrict you."
3. Have some fun. Minds at play are still working.
According to MacDonald, the best kind of extracurricular events for his team were those where they could both talk and bond, with a touch of danger on the side. He took them on bushwhacking hikes through thick jungle vegetation, each member of the team wielding a machete and being careful not to get too close to one another. Lane recalled a long drive to a banana plantation with MacDonald at the wheel. "All of us were sick from the windy road. You felt like your life was in the hands of your leader, but it led to a lot of camaraderie too. And we had some great discussions in that van."
The Vegas team blew off steam in a different way. "RJ and I were in the poker room at Aria, just below our conference room," remembers Thakkar. "He was sitting right behind me watching my cards. Sometimes I was making huge bets, sometimes nothing at all. And I was trying to coach him that you have to bet on potential. You don't know what's going to come in the next two or three years, but you have to go with your gut instinct. There are a lot of analogies between how you play the game of poker and leadership."
4. Set a deadline. Make it sooner than you're comfortable with.
The effort to develop Teams began in early March. Soon after, the engineering group announced that on April 15—tax day—they would have a working prototype. The ambitious six-week deadline, recalled Thakkar, forced them to test concepts that were coming in from the user experience group as quickly as possible without worrying about perfection. "How can we get there fast? How can we set something up that allows us to prove out all these different ideas?" The drive to create an early prototype led to other creative options. "I was very nervous about the deadline because I didn't want to miss it by a mile, but it ended up being key," said MacDonald. "We had our IT organization take away the Outlook [email] client from the group. We were forced to live in Teams, and then we really understood the kind of environment and the kind of product we wanted to build from that experience."
5. Keep communication flowing. Don't hoard information.
The trend in business today is towards accessibility and shared information. That's readily apparent in the popularity of open office plans and the explosive growth of co-working. In the virtual space, Microsoft Teams encourages people to follow their curiosity and drop in on live discussions in various topic areas. That openness allows ideas to mingle and find receptive minds, sometimes far from their intended target. I wondered if allowing that kind of broad access to information was wise. "Traditionally, when we feel things are confidential, 95% of those things don't need to be confidential," said Thakkar. "If people are having a conversation you can walk up and join them," added MacDonald. "The ability to meet and then disperse—that also got modeled in the software."
6. Find the soul of your product. Live its purpose as you're creating it.
For the vision and engineering groups creating Microsoft Teams, being able to express their feelings and emotions was as important as sharing information. In a virtual meeting, it's hard to consent with a head nod or subtly disagree with a raised eyebrow. They had all experienced the power of non-verbal communication while working together and they wanted to make sure the platform also brought that into the virtual space.
The solution was simple but profound. The ability to insert an animated GIF while conversing in an online chat gives users an emotional toolbox that goes beyond words. "It's interesting [using Giphy] the ways you can de-escalate or disarm," remarked MacDonald. Describing a tense situation with a colleague where he gave feedback to a bad idea with a funny GIF, MacDonald recognized how essential this was for productive teamwork. "The person came by my desk ten minutes later. The message got through, but in a way that kept their spirits up and wanting to keep innovating. They didn't feel belittled or shut down."
"Technology can be isolating, but it has an incredible power to connect people if it is harnessed and used in the right ways," said Lori Wright, General Manager of Microsoft Teams and Skype, in a separate discussion. "When you're sitting around a table you're still taking social cues of who needs to talk, and how much do I share, and is it safe for me to share? I've gotten to know so many team members more closely through the product than I would have over lunch or personal interactions."
Is creativity more about process or results? When managing creative minds working under a deadline, it's tempting to focus on an expected outcome. But, like the group that created Teams, if you can step back and observe—even enjoy—the collaboration as it unfolds, then the results you dream about may very well come to pass.
On March 14, 2018, Microsoft Teams will be one year old. With a growing user base of more than 200,000 organizations in 181 markets, Brian MacDonald and his colleagues should be proud of the platform they created, but even more of the process that made it happen.
Published here on Forbes.com
March 12, 2018