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Ozzie puts his own spin on 'ThinkWeek'

Microsoft's chief software architect has adapted a creative exercise started at the company by Bill Gates. He calls it "white space," preferring dreaming to thinking.

REDMOND, Wash.--Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates was known for his twice-yearly endeavors known as "ThinkWeeks," intensive retreats where he pored over technical papers written by his employees.

Ray Ozzie, who succeeded Gates as Microsoft's chief software architect, says he would rather "dream" than "think."

Once or twice a year, Ozzie tries to find time for what he calls "white space." Rather than be surrounded by the ideas of others, Ozzie prefers to lock himself away with the proverbial blank sheet of paper. His most recent such exercise was during a brief trip to Hawaii in April following a work trip to Asia.

Ray Ozzie, Microsoft's chief software architect. Martin LaMonica/CNET News

It's a practice that dates back to Ozzie's time at Groove Networks and even before that. Inevitably, Ozzie returns to the office with a ton of new ideas, sending a variety of "go do" tasks for his team.

"It's clear he's gone away and been thinking," said one person who has been on the receiving end of Ozzie's lengthy post-"white space" memos.

That's not to say ThinkWeek is going away under the Ozzie regime. It just won't be Ozzie doing all the reading of papers. In the last couple of years, Gates began expanding the effort, enlisting a group of the company's most senior technical leaders to comment on ideas.

Rather than have a ThinkWeek, those who are reading the papers are encouraged to dedicate "ThinkDays" where they reflect and comment on such papers.

Another practice put in place before Gates left was the notion of Quests, which was first reported by CNET News in 2006. Microsoft launched the effort, CEO Steve Ballmer said, as part of a movement to further distribute technical-planning work to more people as Gates prepared to step away from full-time work. Gates officially switched over to part-time work at the end of last month.

While ThinkWeek offered a chance for people throughout the company to lay out ideas that may or may not be within their daily business areas, Quests began as an effort to encourage more systematic visionary planning within business groups. People lay out their most inspired vision for where things could be in, say, 10 years' time, beyond the typical product release horizon.

Some 70 such Quests are now in place, within six broad areas, such as the future of information work and the future of the home. Microsoft has added an in-person component to the effort, Ozzie said, with a yearly Quests Summit, in which company leaders meet in different rooms at the same conference center to see what others are up to in their Quests.

"It gives a guy in SQL (Server) a chance to hear where Xbox is going," Ozzie said. "It's a great mixer."

Getting people from across the company to collaborate is key to Ozzie's work. Much of his vision depends on both business leaders and engineers from throughout Microsoft being able to see beyond the organizational chart, and develop products and services that link together what have traditionally been disparate pursuits.