080. Progress From Vision to Beta
"Our business is in the midst of a broad change in customer attitudes and perceptions. These perceptions can be summed up in two words: good enough." — Office12 vision opening sentence
This section tells the story of a plan coming together and the breadth of the release. We did have a bit of a speed bump early on. I was told to align schedules with Windows Longhorn (the next Windows release). The difficult reality of Longhorn had not yet sunk in. The new user interface for Office12 had surprising upsides. While we were confident, we did not know at the time just how positive the changes in Office12 would prove to be.
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Organizationally, we had become a (relatively) well-oiled machine. Procedurally we knew how to work. We also knew what was required at the high level and individual teams knew how to fill in the details with plans. Writing this all down and communicating to the organization a product vision—the vision for Office12—was the next step.
Transitioning from Office 2003 to Office12 was happening across more than 2,500 engineers. In every respect we were building a coherent and collaborative plan with little dirt flying and no injuries, as the old MikeMap description of Office went.
By spring 2004 we had a complete product plan in addition to the user experience redesign described previously. Even with excellence of execution, this was not a lather, rinse, repeat release. Collectively, we learned some lessons from the previous releases. We learned more is not better, and that it was time to rethink, or, as we said in the vision, redefine the user experience. We learned that blindly following the enterprise path could lead to stasis, and in technology failing to innovate or standing still was equivalent to going backwards even when the best customers were telling us of the high costs of change. And finally, we had a firm grasp of how the product was going to evolve beyond document creation—the role of servers, services, email, and more were all important parts of Office12.
The question was not whether we had a good plan or even if we could execute, but would the results live up to our goals. . .finally. There was also a huge risk to making a big bet on changing the user interface of the product—an incalculable risk. It is the kind of risk you either accept and go for or don’t try at all. Many people inside the company, and even on the team, immediately saw the risk of such a big bet and absolutely wanted to know the risk mitigation plan. There wasn’t one. Any risk mitigation plan would only result in a compromise design, because at every step someone would be saying not to worry, we always have a fallback. Backup plans on big bets have way of permeating the whole product development process and ultimately deny the resources required to achieve the goals, reduce the appetite for risk, and simultaneously dilute the efforts to achieve the bet itself.
From my perspective Office12 was all about that opening sentence of the vision document and a single slide shown at the team meeting for the vision. It read, “No More Good Enough,” with a big red circle slash. Surrounding that PowerPoint SmartArt on the slide were reviewer quotes about bloatware and competing with Sun’s free OpenOffice, along with some juicy analyst quotes about technologies that still weren’t going to pan out. It was not that we set out to compete with a free product that had yet to make inroads, but we needed to reset the narrative that Office was complete, old, boring, and, worst of all, bloated. We had to show that there was deep thinking in the product and the paradigm of document creation was ripe for innovation, and by doing that we could demonstrate to the market that productivity tools were not commodities.
In the conventional wisdom of the day, Office was ripe for disruption. There was a less capable product claiming to be a substitute for less money. We took the initiative, intent on doing the disrupting ourselves and not letting something like OpenOffice, or our old products, do it to us. Not to race ahead, but one thing they don’t tell you about in disruptive theory is that losing to a head-on competitor is almost never what happens. Head-on competitors end up, well, running head-on into the entrenched product and that is exactly what happened with OpenOffice. Google’s future suite would initially make this same mistake, but we were at least a decade before they would begin to address that false start, and three years before even their first release.
The redesign of the user experience was more than one part of the product or strategy. It was so visible and so potentially disruptive that we knew no other aspects of the release would rise above it, certainly in the initial product reception from beta through release. Managing the team and project knowing this reality was JulieLar’s mission.
The overarching importance and the inherent risk of the redesign was not lost on the team. We had become accustomed to working together and collaborating. This was the sixth major release of the product and we’d been executing as a single team, not siloes of app teams, for a decade. The team was not fighting the shared redesign effort as much as it was rallying around it. As teams saw the design make it into the product, rather than point out how it might not work and cause it fail to make the point, teams came together to make it better. It wasn’t everyone at first, but over time that was the case. Among thousands there would always be doubters and honest skeptics, but mostly there were legitimate concerns that required more work.
Success has many siblings and failure is an orphan as the saying goes. Time has certainly reduced the number of doubters across the team and company. Those working on the Ribbon have many stories of people across the rest of Office and Microsoft expressing extreme doubt and risk, but those too have softened over the years as people came to realize the different roles people play during a time of change. Suffice it to say, some of the doubters were hardcore and neither quiet nor necessarily even-handed in criticism. The same could be said of supporters. Anyone going through a big bet with massive downside would need to learn this lesson. It would come in handy for me.