As I’ve dug into examples of Frugal Innovation, I’ve been struck by the number of instances where virtual teaming has been an important factor. Since we are surrounded by electronic communications — from email to Skype to shared worlds, it might be easy to shrug this off. But there is nothing easy about innovating or leading in a virtual environment. Think about your last experience of a conference call. It probably was awful. Disembodied voices on the line that seem to blend and overlap. While what’s happening out the window, down the hall, or a few clicks away seems to be much more interesting.
Gestures, facial expressions, and contextual information are lost. And all of these are essential to holding attention and developing trust and avoiding misunderstandings. I’ve found that something as simple as placing pictures of virtual team members in plain site for everyone on the team does a lot to hold attention and develop camaraderie. (On a conference call, my eyes are naturally drawn to the photos, keeping me focused.) But innovating, and especially leading a frugal innovation team (which probably has few resources and may involve the inclusion of volunteers), requires more.
Everyone needs to have a clear role and a stake – The nightmare of a virtual team is not knowing who is responsible for handing the problems and questions that always emerge (especially when the team is truly in innovative territory). Worse, if there are some team members who have no stake in the success (not even having to face disappointed people), those with responsibility may not come through when they are needed. Because this is a fear and a threat to trust, everyone needs to have some indication of the commitment, engagement, and responsibilities of all the other members of the team. And it is up to the leader to ensure that these roles and stakes are current and are appropriate.
Assignments need to be specific – It is very easy to get lost in a big assignment. In a face-to-face environment where attention can be commanded, people can sense the overall progress of the team and often realize they are falling behind. And they are apt to ask questions or provide cues that they are lost and need help. Not so with a virtual team. It is easy for someone to miss something key in an assignment, especially if it involves coordination and deadlines. And deadlines can be missed. Yes, there are charts and other tools to keep people lined up and working well, but more communication and more detailed instructions and specification are part of the cost of a virtual team.
Team members need to be appreciated, especially those who are on their own – Remote team members need to be reassured, honored and celebrated more often than those who are co-located. They live outside the comfort zone. And they have many distractions. Make the effort worth their while.
There are other aspects that need attention: Defining rules and processes. Having regular communication. Rotating Leadership. Renewing and refreshing the team. Providing resources and training. But these are the essential cultural elements that will help to keep everyone engaged, positive, and moving forward.