We live in an increasingly globalised and interconnected world. The workforce is becoming more contingent, so it is inevitable that at some point in your career you will have to manage a virtual team. This is something we have become increasingly adept at, here at Hot Spots Movement, through our Jams. These are facilitated online conversations, for multinational organisations, providing them with insights to take on business challenges.
During these Jams, we work with a virtual team of facilitators. As the team is scattered around the planet we rarely get the opportunity to meet everyone in person. However, our facilitators play a major role in the success of our Jams. So how do we make sure everyone performs at their best in our team? Here are three recommendations based on our experience.
Prepare your team before the project
Our facilitators’ primary role is to create an engaging environment in which people are confident to express their views, share their ideas and collaborate with their colleagues from around the world. When a Jam goes live, we receive hundreds of comments in a couple of hours and our facilitators need to analyse and follow up on the content of each comment. This requires maximum focus and minimum distraction, otherwise the golden nuggets of insights might be missed.
To prepare facilitators for this role, we provide them with all the relevant information at least four weeks in advance. We also deliver that information in a number of formats – including briefing documents and calls – to accommodate different learning preferences.
So, tip number one is to start the preparation early and let your team stay focused. Even though it is inevitable that new information will pop up and you need to communicate this to your team, they will need to take in less.
Identify the best means of communication for your purpose
If you have friends in another country, you know that frequent communication is key to keep in touch with them. It’s the same with work: we need to ensure that we have enough touch points with our virtual teams to ensure coordination and to minimise isolation.
When there is a break between Jams, we send around an email or set up a quick call to find out what facilitators are up to – we take a personal interest in who they are outside of their role on the Jam. We also ensure that they are in the loop with what we are working on and when they can expect the next Jam. During these breaks emails and calls work well, but during Jams they are slow, and can be distracting. For real-time coordination on project work we use a designated chat room. This chat room is both our office and kitchen during the Jam: there is space for instructions as well as casual chats. After all, chats in the kitchen are a good way of getting to know your team members.
When setting up your virtual team, identify the most effective means of communication for each point in the project or team lifecycle. Bear in mind that you will need a different communication channel depending on the nature of the task – chat rooms are ideal for real-time collaboration, while static means such as emails are a great way of checking in during quieter times. Not only will this keep your team together between projects, but it will also enable bonding.
Analyse the project and the process
Our facilitators appreciate the opportunity to give real-time, open and honest feedback to us about what’s working and what could be better. We love this. It signals that they are invested in the project and feel part of the team.
One of the key moments when we hear this feedback is during the night shifts when Jams are running. These tend to be slightly quieter sessions and the online chat room gives us a great opportunity to chat to our facilitators. We talk about how they feel about the atmosphere of the Jam and which topics participants prefer. We also exchange tricks and tips on how we could improve the briefing process and how to improve task-based work. Similarly, our facilitators feel comfortable reaching out to discuss how we feel about their performance. Whether they want to do this in the group chat or in private, it’s up to them. We do this real-time when the experience is still fresh.
When your team is together, that is your best opportunity to dissect the project and find out what works, what needs improvement, and what you need to drop.
It’s interesting to see that the three points above also apply to teams that share the same physical location. The difference is that the virtual world amplifies flaws in the processes of preparation, communication and evaluation.
So what are the three things you need to think about as a manager? First, are you preparing your team well in advance of the project? Do you take a moment to identify the most effective and efficient means of communication for a given task or message? And, do you take the time to exchange constructive feedback throughout the project, as well as reflecting at the end?
If you would like to find out more about managing teams in general, please have a look at my previous blog here. If you’re wondering how you could benefit from employee voice within your team or organisation, take a look at our Employee Voice white paper.
By Sarah Elsing, researcher, Hot Spots Movement
Employee Voice is often linked to employee engagement. While employee surveys are used to assess employees’ levels of engagement, Employee Voice can be understood not only as a way of assessing people’s engagement levels but also as one way of enabling this engagement. It also reaches far beyond the realm of employee engagement. A two-way conversation with employees can help boost staff morale and productivity but it can also be useful in the problem-solving process, create innovation, and help an organisation’s leadership renegotiate the deal with its changing workforce.
Despite these wide-ranging uses and benefits, Employee Voice mechanisms are still most often applied in a reactive manner. Only when staff morale or productivity are already low do organisations start engaging their employees in a conversation. When this is the case, they often focus on understanding what is causing the problem rather than allowing employees to voice their ideas on how to improve the situation. As a large, diverse group of problem-solvers and innovators, employees remain largely untapped. At Hot Spots Movement, we therefore find that the best Employee Voice tools allow their participants to move from a reactive, negative and reflective state of mind to a more proactive, constructive and future-oriented conversation.
If you would like to find out more about Employee Voice and how it can work for you, simply leave your details on our contact form using the keyword ‘Employee Voice’. Our white paper on Employee Voice draws on the latest insights from our client-based research and provides best practice tips on how to make it work particularly in an era of digitalisation.
As the COO of Hot Spots Movement, a research company specialising in understanding what the future of work will look like, I spend a lot of time thinking about jobs – both at a global level and with regards to my team. Frankly, I’m increasingly thinking that job descriptions are a waste of time. With work becoming far more task and project-based, traditional job descriptions feel too static and only marginally helpful in understanding what an employee contributes and how he or she can develop to bring even more value to the organisation. I’d suggest we arrest the time robber that job descriptions are, in favour of focusing on competencies, tasks and projects.
At Hot Spots Movement, we think that rather than expecting candidates to fit job descriptions, organisations and managers should focus on building roles around employee capabilities and potential. And we actually walk the talk: when we recruit, we look for candidates with capabilities, specific skills and a mindset that roughly address the needs within our team, and we then swiftly move on to continually identifying what they are good at. Defining their role based on those factors rather than a pre-existing job description seems to be a far better approach. Not only are project portfolios easier to change than people and more easily support my preferred approach of building on strengths than remedying weaknesses, it’s also an approach that can unveil unsuspected skills and aptitudes. And in this day and age, it’s important that roles can evolve easily over time to move in line with employee life stages rather than follow a set career route.
One of the core differences between this approach and traditional job-description-driven recruitment and development is the fact that it shifts the focus away from ticking boxes on a list of short-term wants. Instead, it encourages looking for a strong match between personality, purpose and values of the company and the candidate – a firm basis for a long-standing and productive relationship between employer and employee.
This type of fluid approach is often associated with smaller, newer workplaces – but there’s no reason it wouldn’t work in a big organisation. What matters is whether the line manager is able and willing to implement it.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve been learning the art of Improv. For those of you who have never experienced such joy, Improv is a form of completely unscripted theatre or comedy, where a group of fully-grown adults create a story, characters and some kind of plot completely in the moment. As we walk onto the stage we have no idea who our character will be, where the scene is, or what the relationship is that we have with each other And yet, somehow it works. Somehow, we create something that is coherent, makes sense and sometimes – just sometimes – is hilariously funny.
Now, if this were a team in an organisation, we would consider it doomed to fail: No goals, no clarity on team roles, no accountability – no chance. But in this domain it succeeds. It got me thinking about what it is that makes it possible for Improv to… well, just work really, and what that could then teach us about creating successful teams in organisations. It all starts with three simple rules that allow everything else to follow freely:
#1 Listen to offers
The first time I got on stage to do an Improv scene my mind was screaming to me: “Say something. Anything. For the love of God fill the silence!” The result: disaster and a very public way to learn the hidden beauty of staying quiet and listening. And so comes the first rule: listen to what others are offering. The only way that something unscripted can work is if you are truly listening to all the cues your team are sending you about where you are in the scene, who your character is to them, and what the hell’s going on. Likewise, they need to be listening out for every possible piece of information from you so that you can all create something together.
There are many parallels here to what we see happening in teams. I can recall so many meetings in which it’s seemed like we’re all working off a different script. And why? Because that’s exactly what we were doing. We were armed with our own individual scripts about what we wanted to achieve, our foregone conclusions about the matter, ready to force that on others whether consciously or without even realizing that’s what we were doing. Next time you’re in a meeting with your team, try leaving the script behind. Make a conscious effort to focus and hear every ‘offer’ made by the other person. Every sentence, every word.
#2 Accept offers
The most awkward moments in Improv are when one actor makes an ‘offer’ in terms of what’s going on in the scene, for example: “Hey, great to bump into you. We always seem to see each other at this same park” only for their fellow actor to reject that offer and instead pursue their own agenda: “This isn’t a park it’s a school classroom, what were you thinking?” There’s really nowhere good to go from that point. It’s a clear rejection and now you are both completely lost somewhere in a… school parkroom? Or a park school class? Huh? When this happens in Improv it’s painfully visible and the chaos that ensues is immediate.
Once again, having learned this the hard way in performances, I’ve become particularly aware of it in other realms of life and work. How often do we listen to someone’s idea (offer) only to reject it, either subtly by moving the conversation back to our own brilliant idea, or by outright declaring it impossible due to a set of constraints reeled out too quickly to be a true response to what we’ve just heard?
I think the reason we find this so hard is because it requires us to be vulnerable. In a scene, if I accept someone else’s offer in terms of where we are or what our relationship is, then I have to put more thought and energy into responding than if I were to simply shut it down and force my own idea – inevitably one I’m more comfortable with. It’s unknown territory and I can’t guarantee I’ll sail through it. Likewise, exploring someone else’s way of thinking at work means letting go of our reassuringly familiar reality to step into theirs. It’s uncomfortable. As a leader, you may feel you need to add value by having the vision and providing clarity of output. You may feel that if you’re not driving the meeting or the project, then you’re not doing you role as a leader. However, the two are of not mutually exclusive at all.
Next time you feel yourself inclined to say no to an idea – to reject someone’s offer – perhaps take a moment. Acknowledge that it feels a bit uncomfortable and then stick with it. It may be that the discomfort lasts only a few moments and is the path to something you never thought possible.
#3 Make other people look good
Every so often, I’ll be in a scene and see an opportunity to throw in a line so witty it’s sure to have the crowd thinking, ‘God she’s hilarious’. And every time I’ve given into the temptation it’s resulted in a soul-destroying awkward pause. Now, while this is no doubt useful feedback about the quality of my jokes, it’s also a fairly unanimous experience in Improv. Why? Because Improv is about teams, not stand up comics, and any attempt to elevate yourself over and above your fellow Improvisers just destroys whatever it is you were creating together.
And so comes the third rule: make others look good. The logic is pretty simple when you think about it: if everyone does it, then everyone ends up looking good. Lovely. So what happens if we take this approach in our teams? If we all go in agreeing that our role is to make our team members look good rather than being our individual best?
This doesn’t mean that individual performance is completely negated, but that in an environment in which no one superstar (or stand up comic genius) is sufficient to succeed, we all embrace working together. We all help amplify the performance of others and bask in the great feeling that comes with knowing that they will do the same for us. This is how we can unleash additional value, enabling others else to shine and then building on that ‘greatness’.
These rules are pretty simple. But what resonated with me was how incredibly important they are in any successful collaboration – whether it be a friendship, a relationship, a project team or maybe even an Improv group. And that they are mutually reinforcing. Follow one of the rules avidly and you’re sure to find yourself deploying the other two: really listen to the other person in your team and you will find yourself immediately more likely to accept their offer and help them look good.
In increasingly unpredictable and unscripted worlds, perhaps now is the time to truly embrace improvisation.
2016 is a sporty year: I’ve picked up cycling, the Euro 2016 has ended little over a month ago and the world is already focusing on Rio. The Euro 2016 was full of surprises and I am sure the Olympics also has some up its sleeves during the coming weeks. Watching teams and athletes exceeding expectations and paying attention to my body’s signals when cycling made me think about what organisations could learn from sporting endavours. Here are three you may want to think about for your own team:
1. Creating environments in which it is safe to fail
The Euro 2016, just like many other tournaments, was not short of drama. We saw players missing important shots and even penalties. However, coaches sent them back to the pitch again and again on the understanding that failure is part of the game. If players felt that every little mistake would be heavily penalised, then they would be less inclined to take the measured risks necessary to ensure an interesting game and the prospect of success.
So what can team leaders learn from this? Well, we all need tolerance of failure within our teams. We need to create environments in which people feel able to innovate and try out new ways of working even if it does not work out in the end. Employees need to be aware that taking measured risks will not cost their career if and when they encounter challenges (and inevitably failures) along the way. One great example of this is Indian conglomerate Tata’s ‘Dare to Try’ award. This award recognises sincere and audacious attempts to create a major innovation that failed to get the desired results. It is a way of recognising that innovation brings with it the possibility of great successes, but also of opportunities to learn from failure.
The question you may want to think about is how do you, the manager, react when your team makes a mistake? Are people in your team and organisation supported in trying new ways of working?
This is a theme that comes out in many of the Jams we run with organisations. These facilitated, online conversations provide people with the opportunity to discuss their more pressing challenges and it is interesting to see tolerance of failure raised as an important characteristic of any innovative organisations. People need support in testing out new ideas.
2. Analysing performance in excruciating detail
Footballers, basketball players and swimmers constantly analyse their performance: During the match, in the breaks and after the final whistle. Even I note down my time, distance and speed after cycling. This helps us understand the factors that drive individual and team performance, and uncover any areas that need improvement. It also helps us understand individual needs. For example, in football, goalkeepers and strikers have a different diet. Why? A striker runs and sweats more than a goalkeeper, which means strikers need more energy to live up to fans’ expectations. Teams collect huge amounts of data to monitor players’ development and strengths.
What does this teach you about performance? Semi-annual performance reviews will not do the job in a competitive, high-pressure environment. Instead you may want to think about how often you review a completed project or a proposal that you have won or lost? The extent to which you analyse individual performance within the team after a project is completed, or whether you move on to the next project without actually understanding what happened and why?
3. Embracing agility
While sports teams have great icons, it does not mean they are the only players who can score. Take Ronaldo’s injury in the Euro 2016 final against France as an example, but I could also mention Kenya’s Jemima Sumgong’s truly amazing recovery during the London Marathon. She fell over, hit her head, and despite all this, managed to win the gold in the end. Portugal’s recovery was not less remarkable either: Nani took over as captain and Queresma was substituted for Ronaldo. Thanks to their agility, the players were able to change strategy less than half an hour into the game and take home the trophy.
Building an agile team is undoubtedly one of the toughest challenges managers face. In project teams, members may change frequently, or leaders may be called away to other roles or responsibilities and yet the team must continue to perform. This means it’s important to consider what contingency plans are in place if a key person were to be unavailable.
For inspiration from the business world, we can turn to music streaming service, Spotify. Spotify’s teams, or ‘squads’ as they call themselves, are good examples. Dr. Jeff Sutherland, inventor of the Scrum software development process explained that Spotify is able to compete with Google and Amazon in terms of performance by hiring agile coaches, employing seamless coordination and mastering the art of removing redundant steps from the project.
How agile is your team and what can you do to ensure your team performs when circumstances change?
At the Hot Spots Movement we are always looking for inspiration from other industries – sports, Opera, dance – to see what we can learn. Football and other team sports are by no means perfect in terms of managing performance, but perhaps we can take something from the sport’s ability to create a safe-to-fail environment, its commitment to reviewing team performance in detail and its agility.
If you would like to learn more, or have a great example to share, get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Despite all the talk about the strength of peer networks and the new technological utopia in which increased connectivity yields instant equality, power is still often a zero-sum game. In fact, getting organisations to do away with hierarchies is proving to be next to impossible. Notwithstanding the rich example provided by Morning Star and millions of books that call for employee empowerment, shared power arrangements remain extremely rare. On the other hand, for all its enemies, hierarchy is amazingly resilient.
Why do hierarchies persist? In 1832, as Charles Darwin travelled through Tierra del Fuego on the southernmost tip of South America, he came across a series of native tribes whose living conditions he described as ‘‘wretched.’’ He blamed their conditions directly on lack of power structures: ‘‘The perfect equality among the individuals composing the Fuegian tribes must for a long time retard their civilization. In Tierra del Fuego, until some chief shall arise with power sufficient to secure any acquired advantage, it seems scarcely possible that the political state of the country can be improved.”[i] Since he made that assertion over 180 years ago, numerous social scientists have similarly argued that hierarchies are necessary. In fact, many theorists have even argued that hierarchies are inevitable as they stem from our evolutionary roots. In other words, if different forms of organisation were more beneficial, groups would have successfully adopted them long ago.[ii]
Hierarchy has evolved to be the most dominant form of social organisation because it works. All those structures and roles serve a purpose. At its most basic level, the invisible hand of hierarchy helps people know who does what, when and how, and promotes efficient interactions by setting clear expectations and role clarity. Hierarchy also offers purely psychological benefits. Research indicates that perceptions of our rank and status in hierarchies are extremely important to us. In his book The Status Syndrome, Michael Marmot details how closely status is aligned with longevity and good health. Status even surpasses education and income, two factors that usually determine how healthy an individual can be throughout their life. An indicator of this is when Zappos gave the choice of embracing holacracy or taking a buyout, almost 210 of its 1,500 employees took redundancy rather than relinquish their hard-won management rank and the status that accompanies it.[iii]
Whilst it seems hierarchies are inevitable and here to stay, there is no doubt that they can sometimes be dysfunctional. The way forward therefore, is to reap the benefits of hierarchy while at the same time mitigating its negatives. At our recent Future of Work (FoW) Masterclass on Power and Leadership, we asked our participants the following four key questions in order to help them assess and future-proof their organisations’ power structures:
Does power inhibit voice? The vast literature on voice has underscored the reluctance of employees lower in hierarchy to communicate with their bosses. Laboratory research on groups also illustrates a similar pattern; participants temporarily assigned a low-power position tend to voice their opinions less, even though the hierarchy was just constructed moments before. How does your organisation create a psychologically safe environment for all employees to voice their opinions and ideas?
Does power have legitimacy? To ensure legitimacy of power, formal rank and competency must always align. However, people have been shown to rise to power for reasons other than competence. For example, research indicates that we are more likely to select leaders according to their sex, age and physical attractiveness than competence. In this context, it is interesting to note that there are fewer S&P 1500 companies led by women than S&P 1500 companies led by men named John. And John is more successful if he has a deep voice, a large signature and superior golf game.[iv] How does your organisation ensure that power has legitimacy?
How do leaders cope with power? Hierarchies will harm collective success when the possession of power induces leaders to be disinhibited and less sensitive to others’ needs. A significant body of empirical research demonstrates that there is a little bit of ‘Trump’ in all powerful people. In other words, powerful people are more inclined to be rude, to lie and cheat.[v] How does your organisation help leaders to cope with this dark side of power?
What is the effect on the powerless? Profound insights from neuroscience have brought to attention the multi-dimensional effect of powerlessness on employees. For example, lack of power has been shown to have negative consequences on employee well-being, motivation and even cognition. These findings should not really surprise you. Not being able to control your environment produces feelings of helplessness and stress, and study after study has documented that stress can harm your health and well-being. How does your organisation give employees opportunities to feel powerful, so that they do not suffer the consequences associated with powerlessness?
By understanding and answering these questions, organisations can create hierarchies that lead to victory with the fewest causalities along the way. The key lesson is that the future of power lies in making peace with hierarchies and learning how to empower employees without dismantling power structures.
[i] Darwin, C. (1906). The voyage of the Beagle (No. 104). JM Dent & sons.
[ii] Anderson, C., & Brown, C. E. (2010). The functions and dysfunctions of hierarchy. Research in organisational behavior, 30, 55-89.
[iii] Monarth, H. (2014). A company without job titles will still have hierarchies. Harvard Business Review.
[iv] Sebenius, A. (2016). CEOs Behaving Badly. The Atlantic
The quest for talent is one that has long preoccupied the world’s corporations. Many have honed their talent-acquisition skills to a very high degree, continuously boosting their intellectual resources by bringing in the most talented people from around the world. And it is undeniable that one of the biggest assets possessed by large corporations is their potential to find and connect some of the most talented and creative people in the world.
While the talent search is undeniably important, companies still often neglect the next crucial step: taking the intelligence inherent in their carefully picked talent pool and amplifying it to maximum effect.
The amplification of intelligence and wisdom is becoming ever more central to how corporations are addressing the challenges they face and to building resilience. There are four key elements to achieving this: the surfacing of ideas, amplification through open innovation, experimentation and the celebration of risk taking.
For most of the history of corporate life, collaboration has happened when small groups of people worked together face-to-face. Technology is changing this – we now have connectivity tools which enable us to share ideas and knowledge not just within small groups meeting face-to-face, but also across thousands of people meeting in virtual environments. And yet, many large organisations still find themselves going back to the same small group of people for their next big business idea.
One example of how corporations can break this cycle and start harnessing the intelligence of ‘wise crowds’ is the Indian IT company Infosys. Their executive group decided to give younger employees a more active part in the long-term success of the business, by launching a virtual “Innovation Co-Creation Platform”. The platform enables employees to identify colleagues with whom to collaborate, to gain access to business data, and to consult experts and submit a business case for an idea. As well as generating valuable business insights and creating a fast and continuous flow of information from around the world, the platform has made it easier for senior management to identify the most knowledgeable and excited people in the organisation.
Amplification through open innovation
No matter how many great people you have within your organisation, there are always many more outside. Corporations have always been aware of this, hence their habit of engaging with universities and specialist research groups to boost their innovation capabilities – but they now have the opportunity to cast the net far wider and to gain access to ideas outside their established networks. Some good examples of this are InnoCentive, a platform which uses open innovation to connect problems to those with knowledge, and Proctor and Gamble (P&G), which has opened up its innovation challenges to the world through its Connect and Develop scheme – a process the company expects will deliver $3billion towards the its annual sales growth by 2015.
The importance of experimentation
One avenue for surfacing ideas which I think too many companies ignore is experimentation. This can be a particularly valuable process when you are faced with problems to which no-one has a ready-made answer. All the breakthroughs we have seen in medicine, for example, have come through a process of hypothesis, experimentation and clinical trials where several different options are tried out and compared.
Despite the scientific record, very few companies dare to experiment. When I was seeking out examples of corporate experimentation for my book, The Key, I found that they were few and far between and most of them were led by scholars or academics – further underlining companies’ apprehension about experimenting themselves. In fact, the only two that made it into the finished book were at Roche and Xerox. And yet, I feel that if companies would only dare to try, experimentation has a wealth of benefits to offer. After all, one of the biggest changes in the workplace – flexible working – was the result of repeated experimentation at BT.
One of the problems with experiments is that they represent a risk: it is not possible to be right all the time, and some experiments will fail. This can be a serious barrier to empowerment. If an employee is aware that their idea may not lead to the desired outcome, they are less likely to act upon the idea for fear of failure or – in the worst case – losing their job.
So how can corporations encourage employees to set aside their fear of failure? The key is to create a culture where experimentation is valued and failure is seen as a natural part of the process. At Tata Group, for example, the company’s Group Innovation awards include a ‘Dare to Try’ category for daring attempts at innovation which have failed.
It’s clear that the amplification of intelligence and wisdom – whether from inside or outside the corporation – plays a crucial role in helping people and organisations become more resilient. As the examples I have highlighted show, technology has a role to play, but it is those companies who are able to build amplification and connection into specific and every day organisational practices and habits that will reap the benefits.