Thriving In The Matrix: An Informal Conversation with 3 Microsoft Veterans on Cross-Team Work
Stories and thoughts on coalition building inside big organizations
When we started this newsletter, the goal was to understand vs. be understood. Sure, we threw some ideas out there and we both love writing, but the point was to see how people reacted to the work and have it spark follow-on ideas.
So it was such a gift when a reader who I had never met, Ayuba Audu, reached out after my post on the “people angle” to your career. Ayuba had some fantastic questions and thoughts about how to stay customer focused while working on large cross-team projects. After threading about it a bit, we decided to take a leap together and experiment. I pulled in a work colleague, Denise Trabona, who I had previous conversations with about the very same topic, and the three of us recorded a podcast. We did it in a single take without anything other than a loose question guide. We decided to just jam on the topic and see where the collective 40 years of Microsoft experience took us. After a quick UpWork contract with an audio engineer (with custom intro music by Skyerush), the results are this week’s post in audio form!
Before we get to it, if this got forwarded to you, feel free to subscribe to Mind The Beet! It’s free and we publish an article every Sunday morning. It’s our slice of life from two working parents juggling two kids and two careers. We talk about life, parenting, and - as is the case this week - career. Maybe a few product recs thrown in. Previous articles are here: https://mindthebeet.com/articles.
You can listen to the audio attached to this post or just play the audio via YouTube here:
This is a 43 minute informal conversation with 3 Microsoft veterans with collectively ~40 years of experience at building coalitions within large organizations. As you’d expect if you’ve been involved with successful projects involving lots of people, the conversation focuses on building trust, achieving shared understanding, acting with vulnerability, and creating an environment where empowered teams can do their best work. Achieving all that while staying customer-focused and operating with intensity is the tricky part. Part experiment in a new content medium, part conversation starter, part an admission that this is hard and there is no playbook, and part therapy session for those deep in the thick of it - it’s far from a complete treatise and our biggest goal is to stir up stories and ideas from your own journey. Reach out to us on Twitter at @AdamHarmetz, @Denise_Trabona, and @aaudu with your thoughts.
Here’s the primary framework we use to structure the conversation:
Foundation of Psychological Safety
“Software is really about people, not bits, at the heart and this is really about a framework for how to build coalitions, which is all about people.”
“You could critique us for moving too slow, but before we jumped to solutions, before we jumped to working with a bunch of intensity and pushing each other, we just built psychological safety among us. It started with understanding identity, for example, “I don’t know everything about X, but I can help you with Y.”
“Listening takes time. You know there are a lot of teams, and a lot of points of view to get on the table and a lot of expertise to understand. And really understanding what does everybody brings in terms of expertise and skill set and perspective. And so it just really takes a ton of time to learn about each other.”
“If you're going years and you’re not working with intensity and you're not capturing opportunity, then you're just doing it wrong. In addition, likely nobody’s having fun and the market is not going to reward you for that. But, one of the advantages of a big tech over a startup is the ability to think a little more long term, and then spending that strategic patience on building culture at the beginning.”
“I'm actually a big fan of that network of do’ers vs. a hub/spoke model for v-teams. Small empowered teams that are loosely coupled and aligned by technology and aligned by Design who are the ultimate gardeners of all this.”
“When transferring charter is done well, instead of having a few dozen people in the SharePoint organization think about the scenario, now we have hundreds if not thousands of people in some organization that feels autonomy and empowered to drive businesses that we used to shepherd.”
“Everybody involved is good at something. Make room for everybody to contribute. I just finished a couple weeks ago a crazy relay race. It's called a Ragnar relay. It's 12 people covering 200 miles in about 36 hours. What you realize is that everybody brings something different to the team. My advice would be: remember to ask and think about what your partners are good at. You can give the baton to somebody for this piece of the work. You can share the load a little bit. I think it helps to break down barriers if people flex on roles and everybody gets a chance to shine.”
Candor & Cynicism
“You just need to have enough capital built up that people will take your feedback in the right way, because without that, mediocrity happens, right? If people hold their punches, then you get the amplified resonance frequency of mediocre results of all the members of the v-team put together.”
“Frankly, my biggest failure is when I approached some of these v-teams starting with cynicism, starting with oh, this will never work. I think nobody will detect my cynicism. But they do. They always do. Humans are good at that. And even when I completely change my tune and get really involved in something, I find that that early cynicism in a project bites me. It prevents me from being candid without being misunderstood.”
Curiosity & Buy-In
“When you come to the party, it comes with an understanding that everybody is at a different place in the journey. Some people are new to this product. Some people have been working on this product with us for a year already - this adds complexity to the human dynamics and if you aren’t careful then to the product itself.”
“Sometimes I or my team needs time to work problems and figure out our own things. And you do need to be very upfront about that or frame that with partners or create an understanding about what's happening. Because if you just do that and it feels like you went off in a silo and then you came back, you haven't really brought everybody else along for the ride. How do you create that balance between collaboration and inclusiveness while also getting to tackle a tough problem and getting the time and focus to do so?”
Role of Product Leader
“Leaders need to set the example and create the environment and the ground rules for the whole rest of the team to thrive. I remember Li Chen Miller, who was very instrumental for saying, hey, I'm not here to do my thing for my team. I'm here to work with you to create the best product. It's so great to hear somebody say that out loud and really set the stage.”
“Gosh, the future of leadership in tech is about vulnerability and allyship and not table thumping, right?”
Move Fast and Constantly Iterate
“On Prem, you could reorg because the strategy needs to be adapted once every three years and you have time for that. You know in the cloud you don't. And so, we're building a coalition regardless of org structure”
“I think that the durability piece is equally shared with flexibility. We have this ever-changing environment and things move fast. We are not shipping a product every three years. People’s needs change and so really the flexibility piece of it is critical. I think sometimes people want to be done, but we're never done, and so it's just that flexibility to keep going and realize you're on the journey.”
“At Microsoft we went through the same transformation most customers went through. We were an on premises company and now we are a cloud company. And so, our culture is embedded with deep empathy for how hard it is to move from on prem to the cloud.”
Ayuba Audu thrives when creating experiences for people, first and foremost, and second to none. From Nigeria, you can catch him moonlighting as an actor, getting into good trouble and much more.
His day-to-day involves empowering people simply to capture a thought and do more important things with their time, by creating expressive, people-centered experiences and products in OneNote and Sticky Notes.
Denise’s experience thriving in the matrix and partnering across product teams ranges from designing software for content and publishing, including msnbc.com, msn.com and the Winter Olympics, to operating systems, where she led visual design and user experiences in Windows Live, Windows 7, Windows 8 and Windows 8.1. She is currently the Principal Design Manager for SharePoint leading the Design team working on sites & publishing, platform, core UX and admin as well several new (and matrixed!) products: SharePoint Syntex, Microsoft Viva Topics and Viva Connections.
Adam runs the Mind The Beet newsletter with his wife Helen Harmetz, focused on what it’s like with 2 kids & 2 careers across life, parenting, and career. At work, Adam is a 16 year Microsoft veteran. He joined Microsoft in 2005, right as the on prem server releases for Microsoft Office were entering hockey stick growth. He was deeply involved in the product transformation to the cloud and Microsoft 365, which opened up new opportunities for cross-team partnerships and helping customers find value in the entirety of what Microsoft has to offer. Over those years, he helped many teams at Microsoft take on charters that his team has shepherded in the 2005-2010 on prem world while also forging new customer value like the modern SharePoint user experience, Microsoft Search, and elements of the new Microsoft employee experience platform named Microsoft Viva.
"From top-down waterfall and chaotic agile, to a middle way": Microsoft's Jeff Teper on 20 years of developing SharePoint - TechRepublic: More information on the business and strategic context that Adam and Denise operate in.
The People Angle: A Lens on Career Advice & Job Seeking in Tech - by Adam Harmetz - Mind the Beet: The post that triggered this conversation.
PowerPoint Deck with graphics. The pyramid graphic in PowerPoint form.
Here’s a question guide you can use for evaluating vTeam success: