It has now been decades since globalization has become the norm for businesses reaching a certain size. Ever since, we have heard leaders explain how challenging the phenomenon of leading a “remote” or “virtual” team is. And in fact, it is. “How do I create an alignment in values, objectives, interests, strategies across borders, cultures and beliefs?” “How do I keep them engaged and passionate when I do not seem them regularly?” ”How do I maintain trust and cooperation amongst my various locations?” are some of the questions we keep on hearing most.
Recently, some of my partners and I went back to the drawing board and redesigned an old simulation of ours with the following criteria:
Aims at showing how distance and interdependency (one team’s success depends partially on another team) may create lack of clarity, stress and poor business results.
The business simulation is totally clear upon the fact that teams belong to the same company, although they all have their own accounting and performance measurement system. The interdependence requires people to share (or trade?) information and (actively?) support each other, although being at a distance and under physically and mentally challenging circumstances.
Speed, quality and efficiency are some of the obvious metrics. We have replicated what matters on the VC2 Matrix from our friends and colleagues, Nick van Heck and Paul Verdin. So, obviously, teams’ competitive and efficiency buttons are rapidly pushed.
This drive for efficiency ends up into brief, to the point and “professional” communication between teams (through any means they like but usually via Whatsapp, mails, sms or calls): “Team 2 this is team 4. What do you have for me? OK this is what I have for you…”
When the simulation comes to an end, there is a sense of achievement, some frustration, sometimes suspicion but people generally feel that their result will be quite good as they ran like hell, solved the challenges they were confronted with and if, yes, there were a few egos bruised, at the end they did well.
When the review starts and that they discover how astronomically far they ended from what was possible and desirable, in terms of business results, they are under shock, sometimes in denial: “But we did what the simulation asked for –suggesting by the same that the simulation played them instead of them playing it-“, “But we have been really efficient, look at our efficiency scores!” Yes and you completely failed to grab wonderful opportunities that were calling you.
The learnings are usually very rich, once the passion, anger and disappointment leave the space to humility and willingness to learn. Why did those remote teams do so poorly and failed to see the opportunities that the business was offering, when all had intellectually understood that they were part of the same firm or SBU and that they had to collaborate and not compete against each other?
Usually, the lack of strategic clarity comes up as one of the reasons. So what? Should we have had a strategy department set up? What says they would have had a better view on the unknown opportunities that we failed to see? In the old days, in a somewhat comparable simulation we ran with another firm, there was a corporate strategy department which invariably ended up being blamed for the poor results. The unfortunate members of that team could only explain that they were so far from the action “How on Earth could you expect us to do anything from where we were? You were not even listening”.
So what could have created the shared strategic clarity, generous engagement, alignment on values, true collaboration?
The drive for efficiency, no matter how legitimate and necessary can lead to disaster by creating the wrong culture. And here are the three criteria one need to keep in mind when preaching efficiency 8specially in a remote/virtual team context):
- Transactional vs relational: In a 2012 post, I explained that the drive for efficiency may let us drift towards transactional attitude. ”You only interest me in the short term, in the measure that you may be of use to me. I call you because I need you!” There is nothing wrong with that, it is efficient and to the point. But if this way of connecting becomes the dominant pattern, at the exclusion of the relational/generous style (How can I help you to help me? I heard times are challenging for you, I am just calling to see how you are), this apparent efficiency will soon transform the SBU/company culture into a highly conditional one (I will help you IF you can help me) instead of a generous one. In our simulation, the teams fail to create and capture significant opportunities by this lack of empathy, leading to a lack of curiosity.
- Demanding vs benevolent: Philippe Bobin, the head of career development for the 300 top leaders at the Belgian chemical group Solvay, has transformed our Challenge and Support matrix which he found to cold and mechanistic into being demanding (exigeant in French) and benevolent (bienveillant). Focusing exclusively on efficiency will invariably push the leadership style towards highly demanding and hardly benevolent. This may create stress, fear of failure, compliance, obedience, low innovation and a blame culture. These attributes are lethal in a remote context. Suspicion will creep in and grow. Benevolent leadership style (when it is coupled with demanding) will create trust, risk taking, creativity, generosity and a far richer strategic mindset than the high demanding/low benevolent style.
- Decide vs explore: Efficiency will shorten the time for exploring, scanning the periphery, trial and error. “Time is money, time is ticking” will blow away the much needed strategic time, spent exploring. Stress tends to severely reduce our capacity to explore, accept different opinions and be curious about why people’s view contradict ours. When our style is exclusively decisive, at the exclusion of exploratory, we create a stress in our organization and, here as well, its capacity to seize disruptive opportunities will be reduced.
If efficiency and creativity, value capture and value creation, getting results and developing your people matter to you, in a remote or local team context, I recommend you test yourself with those 6 styles: transactional and relational, demanding and benevolent, decisive and exploring.
Enjoy your 2015 journey!