Leading Learning Teams

In late March, 2016, a team of Microsoft developers gathered around a screen. There was an air of excitement as they prepared to launch a project they had been working on for months. The team had been developing an AI that could interact with people via Twitter. After many long days of coding, testing, and refining their algorithms, it was time to make the chat bot, named Tay, live on the platform.

Tay was created to respond and learn from her interactions. Designed with a personality that approximated a 19 year old girl, she could caption pictures, retweet messages that were tagged with her handle, and evolve her responses based on the communication patterns she observed.

It didn’t take long for things to go horribly wrong. Shortly after her launch, a variety of twitter users realized that Tay would repeat inappropriate things, including racist comments and drug references. In less than a day, Tay had to be taken offline as she was actively recirculating and creating offensive messages.

It was a PR nightmare. Microsoft was suddenly the laughingstock of the internet.

If you were the CEO, how would you respond? For Satya Nadella, the answer was simple. He told his team he was proud of them, and that they should keep trying, and keep learning.

“Keep pushing, and know that I am with you,” wrote Nadella in an email. “(The) key is to keep learning and improving.”

Learning is hard work. It involves changing behavior, trying things we aren’t good at, experimenting and failing, falling down and getting back up again. That’s how new skills are made, and how new ideas are born.

Staying relevant in our rapidly evolving economy requires us to continually create new ideas and learn new skills.  Smart companies know this, and smart executives like Nadella, know that it’s not possible to innovate without making mistakes, some of them very large. Given the choice between stagnation and risk, business leaders are choosing to accept the occasional setbacks as a necessary cost of progress.

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