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How to jump-start innovation and organizational change

Short-burst, virtual collaboration modules can help employees solve problems quickly and creatively.

A version of this article appeared in the Spring 2022 issue of strategy+business.

In the spring of 2020, an Asia-based fintech was blindsided by surging demand for electronic payments. As millions of customers took their transactions online at the outset of the pandemic, many for the first time, the company’s onboarding, troubleshooting, and other service functions struggled to keep up. Around the same time, my own employer, IMD business school, had to quickly migrate its executive education programs online. Creating this new model required an upgrade of our interfaces with program applicants and participants to ensure an intuitive yet high-end experience.

Confronted with unforeseen, pressing challenges, both organizations responded by hosting short-burst, virtual collaboration modules. The fintech brought together 200 employees for a first-of-its-kind, five-day online program. The objectives were to kick-start innovation and stimulate cultural change by asking engineers to think like product and customer relationship managers. Meanwhile, IMD assembled a group of managers for a virtual workshop sponsored by the chief digital and client experience officer (CDXO). The idea was to examine which aspects of the school’s digital interfaces were outdated, and how they could be enhanced in a way that would simultaneously revamp internal processes and foster the kinds of cross-departmental collaboration that turned out to be vital during COVID-19.

As part of these experiments, and similar efforts initiated by organizations around the world during the pandemic, professional silos tumbled down, and traditional hierarchies, structures, and procedures were reimagined. The workforce thrived under pressure and came away energized by new possibilities. This success naturally raises important questions: can organizations mobilize themselves to run short-burst, virtual collaboration modules under “normal” circumstances, and not just during crisis mode? And can their efforts achieve more than addressing a one-off challenge—instead serving as a catalyst of deeper organizational transformation? My research suggests the answers are yes, but only if leaders understand what these efforts are, what they aren’t, and how to design them for optimal efficiency and creativity.

Agility, not agile

Several similarities exist between short-burst, virtual collaboration modules and agile sprints. Both are processes that thrive on experimentation. Both involve small, cross-disciplinary teams, and provide these teams with a sense of autonomy. Yet the two methods’ thrusts are fundamentally different. Agile sprints, true to their roots in software development, are typically geared toward delivering incremental product improvements, visualizing workloads, and prioritizing activities already in progress. Therefore, they work best with sequential tasks, in an environment where the need for innovation is continuous, and where teams can be assigned end-to-end responsibilities. As a result, agile sprints minimize issues of interdependence. Historically and structurally, they have drawn much of their energy from the face-to-face interactions of co-located teams.

By contrast, a short-burst, virtual collaboration module tackles interdependencies head-on. Rather than pursue incremental improvements, it aims to grapple with disruptive problems and challenges. In this approach, digital collaboration platforms are not a work-around but an instrument of choice that combines low cost with global reach. Crucially, adopting new digital tools, dissolving silos (organizational, technological, psychological), and putting employees—even if just for a few hours at a time—through disruptive scenarios in an otherwise safe space will lead to an aggregate effect. It stretches the organization’s rapid adaptation muscle; it empowers people by equipping them to become part of the transformation; and it enables individuals, teams, and the organization to learn how to change.

Designing for collaboration

Although online teaming may seem like second nature nearly two years into the pandemic, planning a short-burst, virtual collaboration module 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 to be solved. The problems that lend themselves best to this approach are typically new and complex, and demand fresh solutions.

In this context, it is useful to think carefully not only about the challenge but also about its root causes, manifestations, and effects; consider the organization’s previous efforts, if any, at solving related problems; and imagine the desired outcomes. Leaders should hold a problem-definition workshop to zero in on a specific organizational challenge or area of disruption and break it down into concrete components. Attended by the C-suite—and, in some cases, representatives from HR or another function in charge of organizational learning—this workshop is a guided event during which facilitators also help the attendees determine exactly what they will ask the team to accomplish during the module.

Leaders of the Asia-based fintech, for instance, knew they had to resolve customer pain points amid an unprecedented surge in demand for digital payments. They broke the problem down into specific areas that needed both technical and behavioral solutions, such as identifying bottlenecks, building internal awareness of the company’s shifting priorities, connecting with longer-term goals of building organizational agility, and designing “moments of truth” and other opportunities to delight customers.

IMD’s interventions in 2020 brought together senior management, with the CDXO acting as the main sponsor. To declare simply, “We need to be more customer-centric!” would have been too broad. The workshop distilled this goal into workable problems, such as, “How can we improve applicants’ online experience in ways that are user-friendly as well as sophisticated?”

2. Assemble diverse teams. Companies that stick to the old ways and focus on titles, reporting lines, and job descriptions will be unable to unleash a short burst of rapid adaptability. This is a time to be pragmatic and to pool whatever skills and experience may represent a piece of the puzzle. Involving volunteers and drawing on their intrinsic motivation may give the process an extra boost.

Unleashing a short burst of rapid adaptability won’t happen by focusing on titles, reporting lines, and job descriptions. This is a time to be pragmatic and to pool whatever skills and experience may represent a piece of the puzzle.

To help blur the boundaries between the engineering side and the customer-facing side of the company, the fintech brought together product managers, designers, engineers, DevOps specialists, presales experts, technical writers, business and product analysts, product marketers, and customer support staff. The idea here was that this combination of expertise would enable the team to narrow the gap between what needed to be done (from a customer and product perspective) and what could be done quickly (from a software engineering standpoint).

At IMD, we similarly aimed for a maximum diversity of experience in innovation. As a result, the staff who signed up to take part in the virtual collaboration came from CRM solutions, IT systems, customer support teams, user interface and interactive design, data quality and analytics, business intelligence, program coordination and training, and information security.

3. Prepare participants for what to expect. Asking team members to jump into an all-virtual environment, an unfamiliar process, and interactions with people they don’t know is a lot. At the same time, aiming for rapid adaptability means that on Day One of the event, the team needs to hit the ground running. That won’t happen if some team members are wholly unfamiliar with the digital tools they will be using or with the proposed structure and dynamics of their virtual collaboration.

The fintech spent the week before the event training and mentoring participants in customer pain points as well as deeper customer issues, pulling engineers out of their coding mindset. In the run-up to the IMD event, we encouraged participants to get tactile with digital collaboration platforms such as Miro. The idea was to make people feel that the tech was selected, and the intervention specifically designed, to empower them. Online registration was another great touch point, during which participants received guidance and instruction 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 a company’s specific needs. For instance, a large-scale, “the more the merrier” event may span 24 to 48 hours from start to finish. Other events may take the form of 18 hours of collaborative, co-creation efforts spread out over three days (for example, an afternoon, a full day, and a morning) or five afternoons, depending on the organization’s specifications and preferences.

The event rolls out in short loops of virtual interaction. Instead of channeling ideas and output through meetings and protocols, those taking part enjoy the freedom to ask open-ended questions, examine, challenge, and remove the underlying assumptions. Inevitably, resistance and pain will arise: some individuals will be reluctant to share their output, and some teams will want to give up or agree to disagree. It is important to sandwich more strenuous activities between informal ones, 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 the fintech and IMD appointed an experienced moderator and facilitators to guide the team members and nudge the discussions and collaborations along, using tools and techniques such as timeboxing (allocating a fixed amount of time to an activity). Facilitators also observed the different teams’ dynamics, making sure that individual team members didn’t hijack or otherwise dominate the discussion and the search for practical solutions.

5. Evaluate outcomes and recognize effort. The intervention’s deliverables, such as solutions or prototypes, are pitched to the C-suite or a selected jury and evaluated on the basis of predefined criteria. For instance: do the team’s recommendations make us think differently? Does the solution represent an innovative, viable approach to the problem? What are the implementation time lines? What is the recommendation’s potential to drive organizational transformation?

Upon the module’s completion, the fintech’s senior management chose to operationalize 90% of the ideas its employees had put together during their five-day co-creation effort. The company has since rolled out customer support in vernacular languages, expanded into more cities, and launched new product suites in health insurance and small- and medium-sized-enterprise segments. It has also attracted new rounds of financing from large global players.

IMD’s jury deliberated for two weeks, eventually selecting one of the prototypes for its new online application redesign. In 2021, the school engaged external IT partners to begin implementing selected aspects of the recommendations. Its online program pages now enable prospective applicants to download information, talk to program advisors, and assess their own profiles. These features have been packaged and streamlined, and the release of additional functionality and design elements has been planned.

Today, as companies enter new phases of the pandemic, and eventually the post-pandemic world, they need to keep evolving the ways in which they trigger their hidden reservoirs of adaptability. The digital space—fast, efficient, low-cost—is the perfect playground for such experiments.

With time, running these collaboration modules repeatedly, progressively applying them to bigger and bolder challenges, and fine-tuning their design, organizations will witness the positive effects this approach has on people, and the power they bring to problem-solving.

Author profile:

  • Louise Muhdi is Affiliate Professor at the International Institute for Management Development (IMD).
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