[This story is running in the print edition of The Seattle Times July 10, 2014.]
Peter Lee’s mission at Microsoft is to think big, think far and think unconventionally — and to get others to do the same.
As head of Microsoft Research (MSR), Lee is shaking things up at one of the largest computer-science research organizations in the world. Its researchers’ work has been incorporated into just about every company product, from Azure to Xbox, Bing to Windows.
But the division has also taken criticism for not helping Microsoft innovate enough, allowing companies with smaller research and development budgets, such as Apple and Google, to leap ahead in crucial areas.
Shareholders have wondered whether Microsoft gets enough in return for the $10 billion a year the company spends on R&D — a relatively small portion of which goes to Microsoft Research.
The task before Lee, who became head of the organization last year, is to balance the pure research for which his division is best known with more immediately applicable work, all the while focusing resources on what could best lead to the next big thing.
Some of the changes recently put into place, including embedding at least one of Microsoft’s advanced researchers in each of the company’s product planning teams, have come from above, as a continuation of a larger companywide restructuring that started last year.
That reorganization, begun by former CEO Steve Ballmer and continuing under new CEO Satya Nadella, is geared toward fostering more innovation and collaboration.
Others come from Lee himself, such as making sure his managers have strategies for, and can show achievements in, each of four quadrants: Research that solves immediate problems; improves existing technologies; is disruptive and game-changing; or is purely curiosity-driven and exploratory.
The intent is to have a portfolio of research activities that together form an innovation pipeline, where blue-sky ideas feed into industry-changing inventions, which then help with the shorter-term activities.
Some of those changes have caused discomfort. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, Lee believes.
“It’s delicate because, on the one hand, you need creative discomfort to spark creative thought, to think out of the box,” Lee says. “On the other hand, researchers really need stability. It’s always a struggle to find the right balance.”
[Continue reading the story here.]