Leveraging Diversity for Creative Solutions: Leadership Best Practices for Virtual Collaboration
We are all looking for the next great idea – the breakthrough innovation that will catapult our organization to a higher level.
Virtual teams with members scattered throughout the world are a typical part of how business is structured in today’s global environment.
Is there a link between the two?
Are virtual teams in international locations and the desire for innovation, in some way, connected?
Can the diverse perspectives typically contained in virtual, global teams be leveraged in a way that creates innovation?
In recent years, the ability to leverage the diversity of thought represented on global teams in order to enhance productivity and innovation has become a distinct competitive advantage – an advantage that becomes even acuter when economic factors require increasingly lean processes amidst an expanded global reach. The current economic downturn has forced companies to implement workforce layoffs and travel restrictions. Therefore, fully tapping global talent – wherever it may be in the globe – is now a critical factor to survival and in building a road to the future.
What can leaders of global, virtual teams do to create an environment in which this competitive advantage is a reality?
Team members and team leaders often resist collaboration in a virtual environment, as evidenced in this quote from the field:
“It is quicker to just get this done on my own. To involve lots of other people on our virtual team will only slow down the process. We will spend half of our time arguing about the process – not to mention the challenge of getting us all on the phone at the same time given the various time zones we are working in. It just isn’t worth the effort.”
Many of us can relate to the sentiment of this team member. We all work in an environment in which increased pressure around meeting deliverables and timetables leaves little additional time to navigate complex team dynamics. In their book, Global Teams: How Top Multinationals Span Boundaries and Cultures with High-Speed Teamwork, Michael Marquardt, and Lisa Horvath note that,
“[a] major challenge for global teams, therefore, becomes how to encourage and tap into the rich experiences of people with their wide-ranging perspectives and ways of acting – but in a way that does not have the group end up in chaotic conditions with little or no results.”1
As leaders of virtual teams seek to better leverage the diversity on their teams to promote innovation and creative solutions, our research and experience indicate that they should focus on:
(1) Creating an environment of trust within the team – particularly to foster team members’ trust in each others’ skills;
(2) Strategically developing work design approaches and encouraging the use of virtual team tools that promote a creative process.
1. Building Trust in the Capability of Team Members
Trust has often been cited as a key ingredient to establishing effective virtual team collaboration. This is a complex topic that can be explored on many levels. The element of trust that is most critical to the task of promoting and leveraging diversity for creativity is trust in the abilities of the team members. Collaborating virtually, as noted above, does take more time. Team members must have confidence in the potential contributions of their fellow team members and believe that the outcome of the collaboration will be greater than what can be achieved by their own individual efforts alone. It is only with this conviction that team members will feel the increased investment of their time to be worth the outcome.
The following are tips for increasing the level of confidence that team members have in one another’s competency:
- Circulate bios of existing and new team members that highlight their experience and skills.
- As a team leader, actively evaluate the skills of the team members and place them in roles and on projects that leverage their strengths.
- Highlight individual team member successes to the whole team.
- Give less vocal team members a “voice” by recognizing their skill in a particular area and asking them to contribute based on their expertise.
- Build metrics and goals that encourage both individual and team success.
2. Strategically Designing Workflow for a Creative Process
Secondly, the team leader should strategically develop work design approaches that promote a creative process. In Jill Nemiro’s book, “Creativity in Virtual Teams: Key Components for Success”, she outlines three main work design approaches:
(1) Wheel: Leader communicates to all team members; individual team members have little interaction with one another.
(2) Modular: Work is parceled out to qualified team members; elements are integrated together later on.
(3) Iterative: Work may be parceled out to qualified team members but members work together in back-and-forth development cycles.2
Our experience suggests that in virtual and global teams the most common work design approaches are the wheel or modular. The most cited reasons for this are the challenge of time zones and the lack of face-to-face time, perceived as a prerequisite for true collaboration to occur. There is not one right or wrong approach, but if your goal is to truly leverage the diverse points of view on the team in a collaborative approach, the iterative work design approach is recommended. This approach does take longer as there needs to be time for several back-and-forth development cycles. For it to be successful, team members need to have sufficient trust in one another’s abilities and perceive value in the additional time investment.
When these development cycles are occurring across time zones and cultural differences, it is also critical that the team have a well-designed system for communicating during the creative process. This includes regular and predictable times in which the team communicates via conference calls and e-mails and established norms of utilizing these communication technologies. In addition, the team must be accepting of and comfortable with divergent points of view and be able to give one another honest, constructive and open feedback. Cultural norms around giving and receiving feedback will impact this. For example, individuals with a more direct communication style will have a higher comfort level with confrontation and conflict when giving feedback. This direct style will likely be challenging for those on the team with indirect styles. The virtual nature of collaboration over e-mail and phone can increase the potential for misunderstanding if not facilitated properly with shared team norms.
You only have to open a recent newspaper to see evidence of the challenges that today’s organizations are facing. We are all seeking strategies to open up new markets and better leverage existing resources. For many organizations, the key to this involves creating new and creative solutions to meet customer needs. These truly innovative solutions rarely come from one person, but rather as a result of collaboration between several talented individuals.
Creating the environment that encourages innovation and allows diverse perspectives to be leveraged in this process is a key competitive advantage. Organizations cannot afford to leave any resource untapped, especially the energy and potential of their global talent. Through building team confidence in the abilities of its members; establishing specific strategies for knowledge sharing; and strategically designing work processes, the diversity of perspectives on global teams can be more readily accessed. Building leadership skills to ignite this collaboration in virtual, global teams within organizations will allow the challenges of today’s economy to be met and tomorrow’s potential to be realized.
Are you looking to build virtual team leadership with a global edge at your organization? Aperian Global has more than 25 years of experience in developing training solutions for team leaders and collaborators. We teach individuals and teams how to thrive in virtual environments and face-to-face collaboration. Check out our Team Effectiveness solutions or our facilitated programs for teams.