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Microsoft National Innovation Forum - Part I: The Context

Microsoft National Innovation Forum – Part I: The Context

| On 28, Sep 2007

Praveen Gupta

Last week I had a great opportunity to participate in an innovation forum organized by Microsoft in Redmond, WA. Participants included Microsoft’s customers, employees, and partners including affiliates, consultants, professors, and experts. Objective of the forum was to seek input from attendees, share Microsoft’s practices of innovation, and showcase some of the new products in the making for release shortly. It is exciting to see that major players like Microsoft are getting into the world of innovation, and committing resources to accelerate innovation.

Kudos to Don Richardson, Simon Floyd, Joe Boggio, and the staff for putting together an enriching event!

The Opening

Don Richardson, Director Global Innovation Management, leads one of the Microsoft’s industry sales teams focusing on innovation. One of innovative methods used to enhance purposeful collaboration was identifying participants through badge colors. The Blue Badge for Microsoft employees, Green Badge for customers, and the Orange badge for partners. Don stated that “Microsoft is launching an innovation management initiative. How can Microsoft help manage innovation?”

The keynote speaker for the forum was Karl Ulrich, CIBC Professor and Chairperson of Operations and Information Management, Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. The opening talk was about the process view of innovation, which focused on the front end of the innovation process. Prof. Ulrich, himself, has some interesting background as educator, entrepreneur, consultant, and an inventor.

According to Karl, innovation means value creating match of a solution and need, delivered to the customer. Three things common among innovations include the following:

  1. Begin with a sensed opportunity – the hypothesis that a value can be created

  2. From the outset, the probability of success is less than 100%

  3. With an investment, the estimate of the probability of success can be improved

Then, Prof. Ulrich expounded on statistical analysis of the opportunities and ideas, which are available dime a dozen. However, the challenge is to evaluate opportunities to improve the efficiency of the innovation process. He walked through the process of identifying opportunities, and evaluating risks, investment, and return on investment on innovation using uncertainty associated with the opportunity.

Prof. Ulrich’s research shows that most of the innovations are internally generated, followed by customer and competition driven innovation. He finds that the distribution of quality of opportunities or ideas tend to be bell shaped with most ideas in the middle, some worse than others, while some outstanding in value. Example of worst idea was ‘revenge social networking’, while the best one was ‘brokering medical tourism for semi-elective surgery.’

Prof. Ulrich also shared findings on the analysis of various types of idea generation processes. The objective of the idea generation process is to get the right idea, and use the corporate process to create value off the right idea. Interesting lesson we learned that quality of ideas varies insignificantly among various idea generation methods. However, the speed of generating ideas varies among various idea generation methods as shown the below:

Idea Generation Methods

Ideas per hour

Quality of ideas

(Scale of 1-7)




Nominal Group






Finally thought was that most beautiful looking instant successes come after many trials. For example to develop an innovative tooth brush, a company looked at about 300 ideas, made 40-50 foam models, simulated field trials, molded and tested 5 models, and picked one as the main brush for the market. Thus, a breakthrough innovation requires hard work it is no flash of genius.