As people go back to the office (or continue to work from home), we are faced with challenges for innovation. A lot of businesses have spent the past 18 months in survival mode – just trying to keep the doors open, regardless of the cost. Many companies had workforce reductions, cut benefits, and did more with less. Now, labor is rapidly becoming available but is expensive and some local regulations continue to stifle growth.
Regardless of the situation that a firm faces from a labor and productivity perspective, leaders cannot ignore necessary innovation. After such a long period of cost-cutting and tight budgets, the winners will be those organizations that creatively adapt to a hybrid workplace while generating novel products and services for their customers.
What is Hybrid Work?
As we wrote about in Bridging Communication Gaps in Virtual Teams (Leveraging Constraints for Innovation, 2018), dispersed teams involve one or more people at different locations. Hybrid work may include one-to-many or many-to-many arrangements. This means every individual is working in a remote office, or some people are in the office together while others are working by themselves in remote locations.
The benefit of hybrid work to product innovation is that new product development (NPD) can address both local and global needs. Effective product design and development from dispersed teams follows the Virtual Team Model with five elements and 16 practices.
Project teams work on two types of tasks: transactional and relational. A transactional task can be completed by an individual with little input from others. Communication to finish the activity is asynchronous. Transactional tasks include data gathering, analysis and summary. Calculations and many experiments are transactional in nature.
Most innovation work activities involving quantitative evaluation are transactional. For example, analyzing the data from a customer survey uses statistics, can be conducted by a lone team member, and is quantitative in nature. Remote team members can easily complete transactional project activities.
On the other hand, strategic questions and new product design parameters are relational work tasks. These activities require dialogue, shared experiences, and creative approaches to problem-solving. Relational tasks are best accomplished in an interactive environment.
For example, determining if the organization will expand the product line to a new market involves a great deal of discussion to ensure the move will align with the organization’s strategy. Information – including quantitative data – must be discussed, debated, and evaluated in a live (synchronous) environment.
Relational work is best performed in a face-to-face environment. However, it is possible – with a trained facilitator – to achieve desired outcomes of relational work with a hybrid work team.
Creativity in Hybrid Teams
First, teams must have established “emotional” trust. As discussed by Rosenfeld, et al. emotional trust is necessary from team members to take risks. Any innovation work is risky because the outcomes are uncertain. Emotional trust is built through longer working relationships so that each team member knows that others will meet their expectations.
Next, hybrid teams can be creative in relational and strategic planning for NPD. Again, a good facilitator can support a hybrid team to generate creative ideas through guided exercises. A favorite ideation activity is “brainwriting” using an online whiteboard. (For more information, see this post.) These creative endeavors are most successful with both individual and collaborative elements.
Finally, hybrid teams can prepare for innovation work with good planning. Using limited synchronous meetings for relation-building and creative work is beneficial. Save the one-way management communications of schedule and budget for newsletters and email. Both are great for transactional information sharing among dispersed team members. You want to preserve your limited time together for creative endeavors that require deep relationships.
Building a Creative Hybrid Team
You will need to assess which work tasks are transactional and which are relational on your project. Early NPD work needs the creative vibe of synchronous and relational dialogue. Get your team together in one place to diagnose customer problems, align strategic goals, and generate ideas.
Later stages of experimentation and design of a new product or service can be accomplished with dispersed and remote teams. Make sure the expertise of your team members includes individual leadership skills. Task-oriented leaders use one-way communication for project status reporting and reserve live meetings for creative discussion.
Join my upcoming presentations at AIChE on 3 September 2021, Texas ACMP Annual Conference on 17 September 2021, and ASQ Innovation Day on 15 October 2021. You can also register for our very affordable (and FUN) creativity workshop on 1 October. You will learn and practice generating new ideas in a remote, live, facilitated 2-hour workshop. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for details. Register here.
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