Joey is a dog. Not just any dog, but an elite sled dog who participates in the famous Iditarod race across Alaska. The race covers 1,000 miles and commemorates an historic sled dog run to bring medicine to the people of Alaska. Mushers, the humans who drive the sled, win both fame and fortune at the Iditarod.
Nicolas Petit is one of the world’s top mushers. Unfortunately, he got stuck in a blizzard last year and came in second. This year, he was several miles ahead of all other competitors – a huge lead in this sport with legendary and vigorous competition to win. But, then, something happened and Petit watched his 5-hour lead evaporate.
Sled dogs are trained to work as part of an integrated team. Each dog has an assigned role whether it is in the lead or it is a power role to pull. The dogs are trained to work in pairs and with the dogs ahead and behind them as well. When you witness a dog sled race or demonstration, you see cooperation and companionship.
High-performing teams also demonstrate cooperation and companionship. In the business world, we call this “collaboration”. Collaboration allows a team to produce more than the sum of its individual parts. Creativity and innovation accelerate in collaborative environments because each idea builds and expands on those concepts that came before it. Most people report increased job satisfaction when working in a collaborative team setting.
Collaboration for Virtual Teams
Virtual teams are a special subset of working teams. In a dispersed team, most group members are located at different places, sometimes in different countries and often in different time zones. Virtual team members communicate primarily through electronic means and have little, if any, contact.
Innovation is believed to be enhanced by face-to-face collaboration. The speed of new ideas coming to the table can be accelerated in a F2F environment, and co-located team members have an easier time building trust among themselves. Yet, dispersed teams can outperform co-located teams when they are structured appropriately.
In the virtual team model (VTM, PDMA Essentials Volume 3), we present six elements of team structure that are critically important for innovation success with dispersed team members. Of these elements, setting and reinforcing the common purpose is a priority for team leaders. The common purpose unites team members with different individual personalities, work styles, and cultural norms. Purpose explains the mission, vision, and values of the team and leads to improved cohesion.
With new product development (NPD), the purpose to improve customer’s lives and increase the quality of products is a unifying message. Virtual teams bring an advantage to NPD in that local representation on the team yields a globally-attractive product. Moreover, because team members bring varied cultural perspectives to the innovation work, creativity can be higher than in a F2F team. You can learn more about the virtual team model here (training tools) or you can download a paper on the VTM here.
Sled dog teams have more than one leader. And of course, this complicates matters significantly. We all know that working in a matrix organization introduces challenges that are not present in functional or project-oriented structures. A matrix organization is defined by staff members of having more than one boss; typically, a functional supervisor and a project director. A sled dog follows the musher’s direction and also follows the lead dog, for example.
Leaders motivate and inspire team members. I love to help leaders become more effective so that their teams can innovate at a higher level. It is important for leaders to recognize the varied working styles of each individual team member, and to match responsibilities and roles with people’s capacities and performance. Situational Team Leadership model is a tool that managers can use to improve teamwork and output for NPD teams. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to learn more about adapting teams and leadership styles with a Situational Team Leadership activity.
Situational team leadership focuses on an individual’s demonstrated skills and pairs these competencies with motivation and willingness to learn. Early in a team member’s assignment, s/he may be new to the task and lack confidence in an ability to complete certain activities. The team leader offers a directive style to manage this team member’s work, to support and encourage learning and growth.
As people’s skill sets grow and their confidence in task completion increases, the leader will offer different styles to encourage continued learning. These include coaching, supporting, and delegating. It is important for leaders to accurately assess – through conversation and observation – how well an individual is adopting new practices to build higher performance skills. Above all, a leader must be encouraging and tolerant, especially in innovation where failure often leads directly to knowledge creation.
Back to Joey
So, you’re probably still wondering about Joey and his musher, Nicolas Petit. In this story, we observe a demonstration of poor leadership and in act of solidarity or team cohesion. Petit yelled at Joey. And then, the whole team stopped. The dogs were well-fed and healthy but refused to go on after Petit yelled at Joey. I don’t know the entire set of circumstances that led to the musher scolding his dog, but I do understand the consequences.
When leaders scold team members with negative verbiage in public or in private, the employee loses trust and confidence. This is even worse in a virtual team were cultures and norms of communication vary widely. Broken trust is extremely difficult to repair, even more so for complex human team members.
A better approach (as compared to public shouting) is to offer private coaching to the team member whose performance is suffering. A leader can offer a Performance Improvement Plan that focuses on short-term goals, commitment to the team’s purpose, and shared responsibility to change behaviors and learning patterns. A leader cannot impose these objectives on another team member because self-awareness is key to lasting transformation.
People cannot be bought with a handful of tasty biscuits or raw meat. Hard work is required for a lagging team member to get back up and race again. But, when one team member shows his commitment to improving team performance, the others will also come along, just like sled dogs at the Iditarod.
If you want to learn more about developing a strong virtual team, you need to register for one of the Virtual Team Model courses right away! Some other tools for leaders of innovation teams include the Situational Team Leadership group activity and assessing the creativity of your team with a Team Dimensions Profile. Contact me at email@example.com or 281-280-8717 for more information on innovation, project management, and leadership training or coaching. I love helping individuals, teams, and organizations achieve their highest innovation goals!
Stop by and Say “Hi”
Are you attending the Texas Open Innovation Conference in Houston on 28 March? I’d love to chat with you. Also, I am speaking on open innovation and design thinking at the American Institute of Chemical Engineers Spring Meeting in New Orleans on 1 April (Management Division). And, I’ll be at the Bay Area SHRM Conference on 4 April 2019 in Friendswood, Texas.
Finally, successful leadership depends on a variety of perspectives for the team, the product, and the customer. We are holding a special workshop on Agile NPD on 23 & 24 April 2019 in Houston, Texas, USA. Register here for the 2-day Agile NPD workshop and save on a full 3-day experience including a one-day pre-workshop course on Design Thinking. Use code “bundle” at checkout and save 15% on both courses (standard registration).
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