Four years ago, Ross Smith, then director of Microsoft’s 85-person Windows Security Test team, conducted a series of one-on-one meetings with his people. He came away deeply impressed by the talent and enthusiasm within the team but deeply distressed that his workplace didn’t come close to offering the freedom and support required for everyone to bring all of their creativity, imagination, and energy to work.
Then Smith and some colleagues stumbled upon a trove of research around the role of trust in innovative organizations. It hit them like a thunderbolt. Every quality and behavior they sought to cultivate—freedom to try new things, permission to question, the ability to see old things in a new light, support for risk taking, and a tolerance for failure—was rooted in trust. But how to create something as elusive, emotion laden, and fragile as trust?
Smith asked his group to come up with a list of behaviors that influenced trust in day-to-day work. The list reached 150 items but failed to energize the group. So Smith and his colleagues devised a simple Web-based game that walked players through a series of forced choices between trust-inducing behaviors and then compiled the collective responses to create a rank ordering of the behaviors.
Although Smith has moved on to another part of Microsoft (as test director for Lync, a unified communications server product), his initiative continues to attract people from all around the company. From the outset, this humble, deliberately nebulous trust-building effort had a name—42Projects, in honor of Jackie Robinson’s uniform number, among other things—that transcended organizational boundaries.1 Regardless of the department or role of participants, they find in 42Projects a source of identity and collaborative energy that’s rare inside large corporations.