Staying calm in the Eye of the Innovation.(Episode 64)

Staying calm in the Eye of the Innovation.(Episode 64)

Interview with Nicholas McQuire, Director, Growth Innovation and Strategy, Strategic Missions and Technologies at Microsoft.


Nicholas McQuire, Director, Growth Innovation and Strategy, Strategic Missions and Technologies at Microsoft, has an almost impossible job. He job is to align to the latest trends in technology and understand how they will impact future growth at Microsoft and its clients. That means staying on top of the latest disruptions shaping the future of cloud computing such as 5G, Space, AI at Scale, Quantum computing and human-to-machine experiences. Considering how quickly these areas change at the moment it’s very hard to keep up to date with just ONE of the previously mentioned areas. To keep up to date with all of them – and to understand how they will impact Microsoft, its customers and society at large – is, virtually, impossible. I know it would stress me out.

And yet, when I sit down and talk to Nick, he seems so unstressed about it all. He has this very calm and composed demeanour about him and the more I talk to him the more intrigued I become.

I ask him about it.

“At Microsoft we are encouraged to become comfortable with change. In fact we have an acronym for it: VUCA: volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. Being comfortable with VUCA is different from stepping outside your comfort zone. It’s about feeling relaxed and staying positive in a rapidly changing world. And to create that kind of environment it’s very important to have a high trust culture, but it is also very important that each individual has the space in their work to stay curious.”

Nick reminds me that Microsoft has some of the most powerful scientific minds in the world working on cutting edge research to re-invent the future of cloud computing, the future of business and the future of Microsoft. And in an environment like that you have to be comfortable with rapid change.

And Nick is more than just comfortable. He is calm. And it hits me that many people working in high risk, or quick changing industries are calm when it comes to approaching their jobs. There just isn’t time to get stressed out.

When you work in strategic innovation in tech you are in the middle of a storm. Let’s call that “The Eye of Innovation”.

And Nick is aware that he is working in a position of very high uncertainty: “We do not have a crystal ball so it’s very hard to see what the world will look like in five, or even three, years time. We are never finished and we are never done.”

So I ask him how he is able to stay so calm and not get stressed out about the impossible task of keeping up with the lightening speed of change.

Nick: “At Microsoft we are encouraged to embrace change as part of learning and a growth mindset which is a key aspect of our culture. We have a strong culture of sharing and learning, both from mistakes and wins.”

Every six months Nick and his Strategic Missions and Technology colleagues, document the key learnings over that period and share them with peers. This is replicated across Microsoft.

He also mentioned another way of reducing the stress from change: To make sure you are not alone.

Nick: “If you feel alone in the process it makes it more stressful. When you combine the feeling of trust with a growth mindset along with the will to collaborate you get an environment that is far less stressful as there is a feeling of shared purpose and accountability.”

Think of astronauts or elite soldiers working closely together. Calm in the face of huge risk or change.

Added to that, of course, is the fact that there is safety in the trust that you have in the people you are collaborating with, that they have the competence needed to do their tasks. “

Nick “If you feel you can’t rely (on your colleagues) then that can add stress and isolation which of course hinders innovation”

I asked him to also give me a personal reflection of what he does to make sure to stay calm in the “Eye of the Innovation”.

He said: “In my experience I feel that I usually get stressed when I feel overwhelmed by tasks, so the trick is to not be distracted by tactical things and make sure constantly focus on purpose and mission. Having that “North Star” focus is very important to remove the stress that can come with feeling overwhelmed by tasks that sometimes aren’t strategic”

I like that.

Let’s call that “Innovation Triage” – With so many innovations potentially distracting you, the way to keep sane is to analyse if these trends and innovation are relevant to your mission. If not, re-focus your attention to the ones that are.

Finally Nick told me about the need to set aside time to think and to re-calibrate the minds of people into realising that change is not something to be afraid of, but something that is good. A necessary thing.

We all know that when you are stressed and overwhelmed at work the work does not work. And creativity – true creativity – thrives in a mind that is relaxed, calm and pure. The best ideas comes in meditation, in a dream, or while contemplating in a relaxed state of mind. When you understand that, you understand that approaching the world of technological change by running around like a maniac trying to understand it all will not work.

We might be in the middle of the storm of innovation, but that is not a time to freak out. It’s a time to geek out. To calmly learn as much as you can, and then do what needs to be done.

How are you encouraging a mindset of calm

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