3 Tips for Inspiring Innovation on Remote Teams
Generating innovation from employees is a big challenge but also a big area of focus, with many companies actively experimenting on how to best define, inspire, and leverage innovative ideas from their teams.
Inspiring innovation from teams who are remote is an even bigger challenge, given that some of the common tactics for generating innovation work differently in a remote environment. With the rise of telecommuting workers, it’s a challenge that companies need to consider if they want to unleash innovation in their remote workforce.
Here are three tips for inspiring innovation in remote teams:
1. Recognize good ideas even if they’re hard to see (especially from afar).
In a Harvard Business Review article, David Burkus argues that innovation isn’t an idea problem but rather a recognition problem; in other words, it’s not that companies need more ideas, it’s just that they need to recognize the ones their teams are already giving to them.
Spotting these ideas can be especially tricky in a virtual environment where communication can be murky, choppy, or even muffled. Burkus cites research that promotes “idea markets,” where employees are given money (real or fake) to invest in ideas generated by their colleagues; over time, people can work on these ideas, and the value of these ideas can then go up or down, leading to changes in investment patterns.
Similarly, other firms have started breakthrough funds, innovation challenges, or even “hackathons” to corral employees in a structured way of elevating and then investing in their peers’ best ideas.
Some of these strategies are ready-made for remote teams, such as a virtual idea market where employees can invest in their peers’ ideas online. Others, like an in-person hackathon, might require some more creative tech-based solutions (such as videoconferencing) or even an ad hoc in-person meeting for remote employees to come together for an “idea sprint.”
2. Create a culture of innovation through communication.
Some people have argued that communication isn’t as much of an idea problem as it is a culture problem, in which innovation isn’t clearly defined, and neither are the processes, metrics, or rewards for developing innovative ideas.
Therefore, deliberate communication from company leaders is needed to lay the groundwork for an innovative culture; in a virtual environment, though, extra “reps” of this communication are also needed to make this communication stick. For example, instead of one rollout at an all-staff, in-person meeting, virtual teams might need one announcement on a team call, a follow-up email, and one-on-one discussions to answer questions during check-ins.
Just as important as company leaders clearly explaining (and re-explaining) what innovation means to them, though, is actively listening to their employees, who often have clarifying questions to ask or emerging ideas to share. In a virtual environment, where nonverbal cues are harder to spot, active listening becomes even more important for managers.
3. Think like a designer, just a virtual one.
Design thinking is a way to “imagine the future,” according to Bill Burnett, executive director of the design program at Stanford’s d.school. Design thinking is also a tool that companies can use to bring empathy and creativity to the problems and opportunities they’re facing, as long as they train their employees accordingly—including in a virtual setting.
Some basics of design thinking include observing your customer (or constituent) in many contexts, brainstorming countless ideas, and creating, testing, and revising prototypes. Teams can “virtualize” these design-based thinking tactics by getting their teams trained on design thinking with web-based tools, including those offered by Stanford’s d.school online.
Then they can designate virtual ways for their teams to observe customers; while employees might not be able to watch customers shop in a store, for example, they can go online and read customer product reviews. Finally, they can use leverage technology to create virtual brainstorming sessions to spitball ideas, co-create prototypes, and delegate next steps for testing those prototypes.
At Artemis Connection, which I founded with a team of virtual top-tier consultants and designers to help solve innovative companies’ talent dilemmas, we’re fond of videoconferencing; however, many other online tools—from WebEx to Slack to Asana—also help with virtual meetings, idea sharing, and project management.
While inspiring innovation with a remote team may seem challenging at first, the constraints can lead to much richer innovations. Every remote company is different, so try a few tactics and see how it goes.
Christy Johnson is the CEO of Artemis Connection, a consultancy that creates holistic talent solutions based on data and using design-based thinking. She sees her company as a learning lab for the best consultants to lead high-level strategic work AND have a life. Her toddler twins, daughter, and husband hold her accountable for work-life integration, and she’s grateful for the flexible work environment that her work affords her.
By Christy Johnson | June 30, 2016 | Categories: Remote Management