The needs of globally dispersed, innovative, teams

In our August 2012 RiverRhee Consulting newsletter, my Associates and I wrote about our insights on working in virtual teams, so it was with some interest that I read about “10 rules for managing global innovation” in the October issue of Harvard Business Review (HBR)1.

After all, that’s what most ‘virtual’, ‘dispersed’ or ‘far flung’ teams are aiming to do: work globally and innovate, be it to make incremental, or more large scale innovative improvements to their portfolio, whatever it might be.

In this blog I’ll discuss the needs of globally dispersed innovative teams in the context of the insights in the RiverRhee newsletter and the 10 rules of the HBR article.

A different kind of management to make up for the lack of informal, ‘ad hoc’ communication

In our newsletter we referred to the need for managers of virtual teams to have a “much broader skill set” than those managing co-located teams.  They need to be able to switch between their skill-sets to support dispersed team members in different ways depending on their local characteristics.  Local differences may be cultural, but it may also be a matter of the different personality mix and dynamics at each location.

It’s true that dispersed teams may find it harder to stay focused on goals, tackle problems in a timely way, and make everyday decisions that enable them to maintain their momentum, without some form of more active management involvement than might be needed in a co-located team.

The HBR article suggests that a senior manager should be assigned responsibility for overseeing the work of a globally dispersed team.  This assumes that the team does not already have an overall manager in place and instead consists of a looser form of collaboration between the different locations.

The authors also suggest that one site be appointed as the lead one.  They would assist the overall manager in ensuring that a consistent bigger picture is addressed, whereas other sites might be focusing more on the detail.  This site would also ensure effective decision-making and on-going progress.

A well-defined goal

The HBR article suggests that a geographically dispersed team will find it harder not to drift from their remit!  In our newsletter we suggested that that remit or vision should be centred on consistent communication with their customer.  A team focused on innovation should definitely have a vision for what they are aiming to deliver, and with the end-customer in mind.

So again, this is where a directive management approach is essential in ensuring that the team stays focused on their goal.

A strong team

In our newsletter, we suggested that this is where a combination of good interpersonal relationships and sound working practices will come to the fore – to address the greater diversity of a global team, and the challenges of working in a more dispersed way.

The HBR article suggests that a stable organizational context (to shield the team from additional distractions) and rigorous project management (with seasoned project leaders) are additional key factors for success.  The authors also suggest that starting with small cross-location projects or collaborations will also help the team to develop that strong start.

Globally dispersed teams may cross organizational boundaries, for instance if they are engaged in Open Innovation, something that I’ve been learning a lot about in my work with OI Pharma Partners.  Even without being engaged in the complexities of Open Innovation, globally dispersed teams are likely to have multiple partners, suppliers, sub-contractors etc.  The HBR article suggests that teams deliberately limit the number of these to reduce complexity, and to use those the team knows well and are more closely located.

Like us, the HBR article suggests that a team should not be over-reliant on technology for its communication, and that nothing beats initial and if possible regular face-to-face interaction to build rapport and connection within the global team.

Building the team’s expertise

The HBR article points out that one of the benefits of using a global team is the greater opportunity to draw on the necessary expertise and capabilities at the different locations.  It’s therefore important to do just that, and not get drawn in to involving people just because they are available if they are not a good fit for what the team requires.

The authors also suggest deliberately overlapping areas of expertise between locations to foster interdependencies in their work, collaboration and knowledge sharing between them.

Finally, we stressed the importance of all team members being engaged in sharing their expertise, strengths and insights for the benefit of the whole virtual team.  We also suggested that geographically dispersed team members can each play a leadership role to benefit the rest of the team by looking for opportunities to deliver the greatest value in the application of their individual areas of expertise and strength.

what have we missed?

The reflections from the RiverRhee August 2012 newsletter, combined with the 10 rules from the HBR article seem to be a strong recipe for success!  What do you think? Have we missed anything?


1. 10 Rules for Managing Global Innovation, by Keeley Wilson and Yves L. Doz.  Harvard Business Review, October 2012, pp 85-90

2. Elisabeth Goodman is the Owner and Principal Consultant at RiverRhee Consulting, a consultancy that helps business teams to enhance their effectiveness for greater productivity and improved team morale. Elisabeth has 25+ years’ experience in the Pharmaceutical Industry where she has held line management and internal training and consultancy roles supporting Information Management and other business teams on a global basis.  Elisabeth is accredited in Change Management, in MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator) and in Lean Sigma and is a member of CILIP (Chartered Institute for Library and Information Professionals), and APM (Association for Project Management).

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