If you had to introduce yourself to an audience of 17,000 people with a one-minute video, what would it be? I've been pondering that question since attending the Adobe Summit this past week, where one of the keynote speakers was Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. The video he chose was Microsoft's Super Bowl commercial about a new Xbox Adaptive Controller which makes it easier for the disabled to play video games. That choice says a lot about Nadella as a leader and as a person.

Nadella is certainly a celebrity, but he wasn't the only high-profile keynote speaker at this very, very large conference. Before each famous speaker appeared onstage, that speaker was introduced with a brief video. In every other case, the video was about the speaker and his or her achievements, or possibly about the speaker's organization its accomplishments.

Then there was Nadella, who introduced himself this way:

Microsoft also ran this same 60 second video as its commercial during the Super Bowl. This year, Super Bowl ads reportedly cost $5.25 million for only 30 seconds which suggests it cost the company into the eight figures to put this message out there on game day.

A lot of viewers and commentators admitted that watching that ad was an emotional experience for them, and you can count me in that number. The moment that gets me is when the father of Owen Sirmons, a severely disabled nine-year-old, says with tears in his eyes, "He's not different when he plays." My stepdaughter is disabled too, and I've seen that same high emotion in my husband when he's found devices that let her move in the world the way non-disabled people do. 

If you know much about Nadella, you know that he, too, has reason to feel personally connected to the Adaptive Controller, since he has a severely disabled son. In fact, you might assume that the product was a pet project of his. But you'd be wrong. 

"It wasn't even a sanctioned product. It came from a hackathon," he told the audience. And, he said, the Xbox engineers who came up with it weren't satisfied once the Adaptive Controller design was completed. They also redesigned the packaging so that gamers with only one hand or no hands could have the enjoyment of unboxing it unassisted. That reportedly took a further year of engineering work. "The more we can invoke our ability to meet unmet, unarticulated needs, that's the source of innovation," Nadella said.

Creating the Xbox also gets at one of the things Nadella says Microsoft has needed most--a sense of purpose. "Microsoft is 44 years old," he said. "As a tech company you have to get a lot of things right, bet right long before it's conventional wisdom, all that's a given. But what is the real source of inspiration for getting those things right? One is a sense of purpose, and the other is culture."

But when it came to purpose, the company was a victim of its own success. "In the 1990s, our mission was to get a personal computer in every home and on every desk, and by the end of the 1990s, we had pretty much achieved that in the developed world," he said. "Since then, we've been seeking a mission." Creating that sense of empowerment in technology users is part of that, he said. 

Today, Nadella added, every industry sector is being transformed by ubiquitous computing--first conceived the late Xerox PARC chief scientist Mark Weiser who coined the term in 1988. In Weiser's vision, computers would become invisible servants and "recede into the background of our lives"--a vision Nadella says is coming true today.

What happens tomorrow? Nadella says he'll keep learning. "If you're going to keep reinventing yourself you need a learning culture," he explained. "I went on a massive quest where I said what are the attributes of a learning culture? Fortunately, my wife introduced me to the Carol Dweck book Mindset." He says he read it more as a father than as a CEO, but found the key to Microsoft's future innovation in the idea. The goal, he says, is to "go from being know-it-alls to learn-it-alls and maintain that posture." 

Creating the Xbox Adaptive Controller is a perfect example of how to be a learn-it-all. After watching the Adaptive Controller video, one software engineer posted this comment on YouTube: "I genuinely have never felt so much pride saying 'I work at Microsoft.'" Looks like Nadella has helped the company find its sense of purpose again as well.

Published on: Mar 30, 2019
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