In the spring of 2020, an Asia-based fintech company was hit by a surge in demand for electronic payments. With millions of customers transacting online at the start of the pandemic, many of them first struggled with on-board company functions, troubleshooting, and other service functions to keep up. Around the same time, my employer, the IMD business school, had to quickly migrate executive education programs online. Creating this new model requires upgrading our interfaces with applicants and program participants to ensure an intuitive and upscale experience.
Faced with urgent and unexpected challenges, the two organizations responded by hosting short-term virtual collaboration modules. A fintech company has brought together 200 employees in a first-of-its-kind five-day online program. The goals were to spark innovation and catalyze cultural change by asking engineers to think like CRMs. Meanwhile, IMD brought together a group of managers in a virtual workshop sponsored by the Chief Customer Experience and Digital Officer (CDXO). The idea was to examine aspects of the school’s digital interfaces that were outdated, and how they could be improved in a way that would simultaneously revamp internal operations and enhance the kinds of interdepartmental collaboration that have been shown to be vital during COVID-19.
As part of these experiences, and similar efforts initiated by organizations around the world during the pandemic, occupational silos have collapsed, and traditional hierarchies, structures, and procedures have been reimagined. The workforce has thrived under pressure and emerge with new possibilities. This success naturally raises important questions: Can organizations mobilize themselves to run virtual short-term collaboration units under “normal” conditions, and not just during a crisis situation? And can their efforts do more than meet a one-time challenge—instead serve as a catalyst for deeper organizational transformation? My research suggests that the answers are Yes, but only if leaders understand what these efforts are, what they are not, and how to design them for optimal efficiency and creativity.
agility, not agility
There are many similarities between the short-term virtual collaboration modules and the sprint. Both are processes that thrive on experience. Both include small, multidisciplinary teams, and provide these teams with a sense of independence. However, the orientations of the two methods are fundamentally different. Sprints, which have their roots in software development, are typically geared toward delivering incremental product improvements, visualizing workloads, and prioritizing activities already underway. Therefore, they work best with sequential tasks, in an environment where the need for innovation is constant, and where teams can be assigned cross-cutting responsibilities. As a result, fast sprints reduce interdependence issues. Historically and structurally, they drew much of their energy from the face-to-face interactions of the teams involved at the site.
By contrast, a virtual short-term collaboration module deals with interconnections directly. Rather than seeking incremental improvements, aim to counter disruptive problems and challenges. In this approach, digital collaboration platforms are not an alternative solution but a preferred tool that combines low cost and global reach. Crucially, adopting new digital tools, dissolving silos (organizational, technological and psychological), and putting employees – even if for a few hours at a time – through disruptive scenarios in a safe place will result in an overall impact. They stretch the muscle of rapid adaptation of the organization; Empower people by equipping them to become part of the transformation; It empowers individuals, teams, and the organization to learn how to change.
Design for Collaboration
While online teamwork may seem like second nature nearly two years into the pandemic, planning for a short-term virtual collaboration requires leaders to follow five steps.
1. Define the challenge. The first step is to understand the challenge and identify a clear problem that needs solving. The problems that work best for this approach are usually new, complex, and require new solutions.
In this context, it is useful to reflect not only on the challenge but also on its root causes, manifestations and effects; Consider the organization’s previous efforts, if any, in solving relevant problems; And imagine the desired results. Leaders should hold a problem definition workshop to focus on a specific organizational challenge or area of disruption and break it down into tangible components. Attended by a C-suite—and in some cases, representatives from Human Resources or another function responsible for organizational learning—this workshop is a guided event during which facilitators also help attendees decide exactly what they will ask the team to accomplish during a unit.
For example, Asia-based fintech leaders have realized that they have to solve customer problems amid an unprecedented surge in demand for digital payments. They break down the problem into specific areas that need technical and behavioral solutions, such as identifying bottlenecks, building internal awareness of the company’s changing priorities, communicating long-term goals to build organizational resilience, designing “moments of truth” and others. Opportunities to delight customers.
IMD interventions in 2020 brought together senior management, with CDXO serving as the lead sponsor. To simply advertise, “We need to be more customer centric!” It will be very wide. The workshop turned this goal into practical problems, such as, “How can we improve applicants’ online experience in easy-to-use, cutting-edge ways?”
2. Assemble diverse teams. Companies that stick to the old ways and focus on titles, hierarchy, and job descriptions will not be able to unleash a short wave of adaptability. This is the time to be hands-on and gather any skills and experience that may be part of the puzzle. Involving volunteers and relying on their own motivation can give the process an extra boost.
Unleashing a short burst of adaptability won’t happen by focusing on titles, reporting lines, and job descriptions. This is the time to be hands-on and gather any skills and experience that may be part of the puzzle.
To help blur the boundaries between the engineering and customer-facing side of the company, fintech has brought together product managers, designers, engineers, DevOps specialists, pre-sales experts, technical writers, business and product analysts, product marketers, and customer support staff. The idea here was that this combination of experience would enable the team to bridge the gap between what needs to be done (from a customer and product perspective) and what can be done quickly (from a software engineering standpoint).
At IMD, we similarly aimed for maximum diversity of expertise in innovation. As a result, employees who signed up to participate in virtual collaboration came from CRM solutions, IT systems, customer support teams, user interface, interactive design, data quality, analytics, business intelligence, software coordination, training, and information security.
3. Prepare participants for what to expect. Asking team members to jump into a fully virtual environment, unfamiliar operation, and interactions with people they don’t know is a lot. At the same time, the goal of being able to quickly adapt means that on the first day of the event, the team needs to get off the ground quickly. It will not happen if some team members are completely unfamiliar with the digital tools they will be using or the proposed structure and dynamics of their virtual collaboration.
The fintech company had spent the week prior to the event training and guiding participants into customer pain points as well as deeper customer issues, getting engineers out of their coding mindset. In the lead up to the IMD event, we encouraged participants to engage in touch with digital collaboration platforms such as Miro. The idea was to make people feel that the technology had been chosen, and that the intervention was tailored to empower them. Online registration was another great point of contact, during which participants received instructions and how-to materials such as short on-demand videos.
4. Run the virtual collaboration event. Thanks to its modular design, the event itself can be tailored to the company’s specific needs. For example, a large-scale “the more fun” event might span 24 to 48 hours from start to finish. Other events may take the form of 18 hours of collaborative and creative effort spread over three days (eg afternoon, full day, morning) or five afternoons, depending on the organization’s specifications and preferences.
The event begins in short episodes of virtual interaction. Rather than directing ideas and output through meetings and protocols, participants are free to ask open-ended questions and examine, challenge, and eliminate underlying assumptions. Inevitably, resistance and pain will emerge: some individuals will be reluctant to share their results, and some teams will want to give in or agree to disagree. It is important to separate more intense activities from informal activities, to defuse these tensions and give people a sense of comfort and ease. This may come in the form of games, yoga sessions, or concerts.
Both fintech and IMD have hired an experienced coordinator and facilitators to guide team members and drive discussions and collaborate together, using tools and techniques such as downtime (allocating a fixed amount of time to an activity). Facilitators also noted the different team dynamics, making sure that individual team members did not hijack or otherwise dominate the discussion and look for workable solutions.
5. Evaluation of results and recognition of efforts. The outputs of the intervention, such as solutions or prototypes, are presented to a C-suite or a selected jury and evaluated against pre-defined criteria. For example: Do the team’s recommendations make us think differently? Does the solution represent an innovative and viable approach to the problem? What are the implementation timelines? What is the potential for a recommendation to drive organizational transformation?
Upon completion of the module, fintech senior management chose to operationalize 90% of the ideas their employees put together during their five-day joint creation effort. Since then, the company has launched customer support in local languages, expanded to third and fourth tier cities, and launched new product groups in the health insurance and SME sectors. It has also attracted new rounds of funding from major global players.
The jury debated at IMD for two weeks, and eventually chose one of the prototypes to redesign the new online application. In 2021, IMD engaged external IT partners to begin implementing selected aspects of the recommendations. Online program pages allow potential applicants to download information, speak to program advisors, and evaluate their profiles. These features were grouped and simplified, it was planned to release additional functions and design elements.
Today, as companies enter new phases of the pandemic and eventually the post-pandemic world, they need to continue developing ways in which they unlock their hidden reservoirs of adaptability. The digital space – fast, efficient and low cost – is the perfect playground for such experiences.
As time passes, these collaboration modules run more frequently, progressively apply them to bigger and bolder challenges, and fine-tune their design, organizations will see the positive effects of this approach on people and the power they bring to problem-solving.
- Louise Mahdi He is an associate professor of innovation and strategy at IMD.