Innovation Through Collaboration

The massive shift to remote collaboration has fundamentally changed how we work together. Technology plays a starring role in this story.

Host Melanie Green explores the links between collaboration and innovation and what business leaders and thinkers are doing  to take it to the next level. Think about the move to virtual learning by schools everywhere. Think about the countless medical clinics that moved online overnight to continue helping patients. Think about the great innovations in technology that had to happen in a short time to make all of this possible.

Tune in to hear more about this explosion in innovation and what business leaders can do to sustain it as hybrid work takes hold.

PODCAST | 21m
December 1, 2021
S4:Ep6

Executive summary

  • Through communicating effectively and choosing sustainable technology, leaders can support their hybrid teams in a balanced way that produces innovation without burnout.

Featured voices

Anna Lopatukhina
Senior Manager, Product Management
Wrike

Jessica Reeder
Senior-All Remote Campaign Manager
GitLab

Rob Cross
Author of Beyond Collaboration Overload: How to Work Smarter, Get Ahead, and Restore Your Professor at Babson College
Co-Founder of and Research Director for Connected Commons

Melanie Green (host):
This past couple of years have yielded some big stories of collaboration. Think of all the schools, colleges and universities working with their IT departments to move classes online practically overnight.  Think of all the doctors who had to completely upend the way they looked after their patients, moving to virtual visits. And think of Beethoven. Yeah, Beethoven. Even though the German composer has been dead for nearly two centuries, his 10th symphony has just been finished. How could this be possible?  It was actually an amazing collaboration between Beethoven, a team of musicologists and computer scientists. Beethoven left only a few clusters of notes and scribblings of his 10th Symphony. But in 2019, a group of AI whizzes and music gurus got together to brainstorm how these fragments could be turned into a complete piece of music, one that Beethoven himself could conceivably have written. It was like musical fan fiction taken to the next level. They collaborated to teach the AI how to take the few notes that Beethoven had written and turn it into a symphony. It sounds far-fetched -- but that’s pretty much what Beethoven did with his 5th symphony. He took those famous four notes and used them as the inspiration for the entire symphony. The team worked for years on this incredibly nuanced and complex challenge. And this year, they unveiled AI’s take on Beethoven’s 10th symphony. I’m Melanie Green (host):anie Green. This is Remote Works, an original podcast by Citrix. Today on our hybrid survival guide, we explore the sweet sound of collaboration.

 

Anna Lopatukhina

So I think that collaboration is actually important, throughout the whole work cycle.

Melanie Green (host):

Anna Lopatukhina is Senior Manager, Product Management for Wrike, a Citrix company. Wrike’s raison d'etre is collaboration. They create cloud-based collaborative work management software. For Anna, the music happens when people from many disciplines work together in harmony on a project. That can be tricky. Her collaborations typically involve a diverse group of specialists: product managers, product designers, UX, and product analysts. With so many creative minds at the table, Anna says it’s imperative to start with a common understanding of the problem they want to solve. And the next step is to provide them with the tools to solve that problem.

 

Anna Lopatukhina:

In order to have a successful collaboration, especially a successful remote brainstorming, it's very important to have a good process and a good facilitator. And sometimes teams do want to cooperate, but they just don't have these tools. And for me as a manager, it's really important to make sure that they are equipped,

Melanie Green (host):

That’s an important takeaway. Get the team on the same page right up front. And make sure they have the time and tools they need to get the job done. It’s interesting: Anna’s ideas about how collaboration works - how brainstorming can be done best, have changed drastically over the past couple of years.  

Anna Lopatukhina:

If you asked me like two years ago, uh, how we should do a good brainstorm, I would say that was together, everybody in the same room. And that time I was actually thinking that it just won't work online. But once the pandemic started, we just didn't have any other choice. And we started doing this remote brainstorming and surprisingly it did work.

 

Melanie Green (host):

You  can imagine that in a company like Wrike - that makes collaboration tools - there’s more pressure than ever to brainstorm.  To come up with new products and solutions. They’re constantly asking the question: How do you maximize innovation and creativity? Anna talks about the importance of enabling and encouraging employees to go outside of the box. One of the ways Wrike does this is with an annual hackathon. 

If you’ve never been to a hackathon, it’s like an innovation marathon. Employees come together for 24 hours to tackle the biggest challenges of the company. When it’s over you have a sea of empty coffee cups, chip bags, and some amazing results.

Anna Lopatukhina:

In the beginning we had a strict requirement that, in order to be able to present the idea, this idea should be ready for production already. And then we decided that it actually limits our ability to innovate. So we just decided to lift this restriction and now it can be any crazy ideas. And there are a lot of big projects that maybe took a year or so that grew from these hackathons.

Melanie Green (host):

The success of these collaborations spurred Wrike to attempt something on a larger scale -- kind of like a symphony of collaboration. Anna pulled her company’s teams together to work on one of their biggest projects ever. It involved half the entire company with multiple teams working together.

 

Anna Lopatukhina:

So I think once I counted either 10 or 11 different teams that were contributing to the same initiative. And that was really, the biggest challenge for me was just to make sure that everybody's on the same page.

 

Melanie Green (host):

For a mega-collaboration like this, crystal clear communication and laser-like focus is critical. In other words, you need a conductor to keep the orchestra playing in time.

 

Anna Lopatukhina:

I just think that if, for example, we want to do something collaboratively, it's important for at least one person to think about how we manage this. What tools we’ll use, what processes, and how we make sure that everybody's engaged. And sometimes it just doesn't happen on its own. It's important for at least one person to think about it.

Melanie Green (host):

Having that orchestra leader is even more important when you’re working in a hybrid structure.

 

Collaboration boosts innovation

 

Anna Lopatukhina:

And I think that really our collaboration level was even better than it was before the pandemic. In terms of innovation, I think it's more similar because I think innovation really depends on the state of mind. But on the other hand, this big change just makes us look at things differently and that in some way boosts innovation.

Melanie Green (host):

So even if we’re not in the same room, we’re all playing the same tune. We’re working closer together than ever before. This is not just a cliche, it’s actually true. Hybrid work has become a catalyst for an innovation explosion, one that’s fuelled by collaboration. I want you to meet two collaboration experts who have thought deeply about how to make remote and hybrid work succeed long-term and collaboration is always front and center.

 

Jessica Reeder:

Collaboration is actually getting together and sharing information and sharing the process of building something.

 

Melanie Green (host):

That’s Jessica Reeder, Senior All Remote Campaign Manager at the tech company GitLab. She’s big on showing companies how to best use technology to maximize work away from the office.

Rob Cross:

They come together and they bring different perspectives and they see different possibilities and they drive an innovation or they enable some kind of insight or some ability to scale an accomplishment. That's what we really want to preserve.

Melanie Green (host):

And that’s Rob Cross.  He’s the collaboration go-to guru. He wrote a book called Beyond Collaboration Overload. He’s also the co-founder and research director for a group called the Connected Commons.

 

Collaboration and vulnerability

 

Jessica Reeder:

It's almost a vulnerability process. We have to open ourselves up, we have to try new things and we have to be open to a lot of feedback for it to really, really work. It's nice to think about it in terms of sharing and going places and all of that, but there's, you know, it can be a tough process as well.

Melanie Green (host):

Jessica’s right. Learning how to work together in a way most of us never have has been tough. It can put us in vulnerable situations. Sometimes it feels like we’re working in a void. Getting feedback can be hard. It can be challenging to find our place. And as Anna from Wrike pointed out, the massive shift happening in organizations has meant that this is a time of fundamental change and change can be unnerving. The way forward is working together to come up with ideas. Brainstorming. Meeting. Sharing information. It all looks so different now.  But the reality is, collaboration is needed now more than ever across industries. And it’s happening.  Recent Fieldwork by Citrix research shows that in the past year, companies that invested in new technology and flexible work contributed to a $678 billion boost in revenue across the sectors they looked at. So when Jessica says this transition can be a tough one, it’s because we’re navigating new territory. We’re trying new things. We’re collaborating. We’re innovating.

Jessica Reeder:

Innovation is obviously developing new ideas and new things and pushing things to places where they've never been before. And again, that is challenging. That's very, very challenging. It's nice to think about as a vague concept but to actually do it, you have to get real. You have to get gritty and you have to sort of challenge yourself to go further than you may have been comfortable going in the past.

Melanie Green (host):

Jessica is a realist. That pairs well with Rob Cross and his pragmatic research about collaboration. And Rob’s research has yielded a big surprise. We hear a lot about tech as a savior, and yes, tech is definitely the key to connection. But there’s a limit. Rob says that as we utilize our tech we need to remember that tech is just a tool. We need to put limits on our almost limitless tools for collaboration: email, phone calls, virtual meetings, group chats. Don’t let the tech be the boss.  Be wary of what Rob refers to as excess connectivity.

Excess connectivity

Rob Cross 

And it's that excess connectivity that's kind of come in and crept into work in different ways that is a form of collaboration that we're oftentimes looking to say, how can we make that most efficient. How do we find ways for people to buy back time to preserve more of that space for both getting the individual work they have to get done as well as the time for those true team level interactions that drive different aspects of innovation or results inside organizations.

Melanie Green (host)::

We need to find that sweet spot. We need to challenge ourselves, we need to work together, but we don’t want to become overwhelmed. It’s unhealthy and unproductive. And what Rob found in his research - surprise, surprise - is that’s happening to many of us.

Rob Cross: 

 

When you think about it, expansively like that - time spent on email, responding to IMs on that team collaborative space that we all have, on Slack, in meetings, the aggregate collaborative footprint of work went up about 50% for most people over the course of about a decade and a half. And so that immediately, you know, got me focused on this idea that that is unsustainable for organizations.

Melanie Green (host):

So what’s the answer? To find out, Rob looked to the people who are networking successfully in their organizations in a way that is sustainable. What are they doing that the rest of us should be emulating?

Rob Cross: 

So that really took me down this track of saying, well we really want to understand who are those people that are giving the greatest impact in these networks and taking the least amount of time. Right. And so they were in essence about 18 to 24% more efficient than their peers. And that's about a day a week, right, if you think about it, that these people were clawing back on the margin and they weren't doing it in any way that was diminishing performance. These were the higher producers, the higher performers  in all these places.

Melanie Green (host):

Rob focused on these people doing more work in less time. He discovered that this group actively managed their networking. They used it to stay productive without getting overwhelmed or bogged down. In fact, they used it to reach out to new people -- to look for new ideas.

 

Bridging ties

 

Rob Cross: 

So it was people that had more bridging ties into other functional areas, other capability domains, other account groups, other geographies, and it was the breadth of those connections that got them into different pockets of the world that kept them more innovative and better able to kind of see a more innovative solutions over time. And the way they did that is we found that our more successful people, they were more likely to spend about 20 or 25% more time than the average performer exploring possibilities. And so they would be reaching out to others and, you know, just saying, gosh, how could we work together? What are you doing and how does this integrate with what I do?

Melanie Green (host): 

This goes to the heart of what so many organizations are focused on now: the important role leaders have in connecting networks, bringing their diverse teams to the table, and how remote and hybrid made that even more necessary. I’m going to bring Jessica Reeder back in here.

 

Jessica Reeder:

Global communication. Like let's say that we want to develop a product that can be used by people around the world. Well, wouldn't it be nice if we could actually talk to people around the world about how they use it. And so now that's becoming more possible. There are lots and lots of examples and there are a lot of examples where we've tried and done it wrong. So it's still a learning process but I think it's clear that democratizing access to communication is in turn democratizing access to all sorts of other things.

Melanie Green (host):

Jessica Reeder’s concept of democratizing communication makes sense. We all want to increase communication. Or do we? Rob Cross’s research also raised another interesting finding. In some large organizations, something is happening in terms of collaboration. Teams are turning more inward and less outward. Let me explain: Rob’s research found that connection and communication within teams has gone up over the past couple of years. But it’s fallen off between teams, like those teams separated by geographical divides and client groups, for example. So we’re working with our direct peers better than ever before but other groups in our organization? Not so much. And that connectivity between groups is often where the magic happens, where creative solutions and collaborations come to life. The leaders who would normally support those connections and communications across divides have been too busy supporting their own teams. Rob says they’re tired and overwhelmed. They feel they’re in silos. This isolation gives way to a lack of trust.

 

Wellbeing: take care of your leaders

Rob Cross:

A lot of the companies come to me and they say, Rob we need our leaders to trust each other. They're not collaborating because they don't trust each other. And I'll push on that a little bit. And I said, well, how do you know they're just not so overwhelmed that on the margin, they're going to take that extra 30 seconds to God forbid, see their family and not the two or three extra calls at the end of the night.

Melanie Green (host):

So what’s the solution?

Rob Cross:

If we could release that pressure a little bit, maybe they would have those bridging ties kind of come back in. And that seems to be really working. For a lot of the places it’s really targeting these collaborative efficiency ideas, the specific layers that are getting overwhelmed and  you're accomplishing two things, right? You're promoting wellbeing at a certain level. And then you're giving them the tools to kind of be building these bridging ties back and the sources of innovation in most places back.

Melanie Green (host):

The right tools, says Jessica Reeder from Gitlab, will help strengthen our relationships and connections.

Use the right tech

Jessica Reeder:

We all understand technology. We understand how to work across time zones and across the internet. And I think that has affected the culture at every company everywhere and every institution education everywhere, right? In addition to that, there's been this more cultural shift where people are wanting to be more inclusive. We want to see more diversity. We want to see more diversity of thought. We want to see more interaction and generational diversity and all of that kind of requires that you become a little more open whether that's recruiting or just how you collaborate with people or just how you think about things. There have been shifts in the patterns in the ways that we work, the processes that we use. So everything has changed a ton. You know, if you go back 10 years ago, it was like you know, you can send people an email, but they really wanted you to call them. And now it's like, please don't send me an email, just write it down and we'll do a shared document.

Melanie Green (host):

Shared documents. Shared ideas. And the tools that will help speed up the sharing of ideas rather than slow it down. That is collaboration that leads to creative ideas, to innovation. Rob Cross says that for hybrid work to thrive long term, organizations need to prioritize the well-being of their people above innovation and everything else.  And they need to recognize that the stress people are feeling now is different than in the past. It’s the stress that comes because we are so connected at all times. 

Rob Cross:

It's seeing a teammate that needs to be coached for the third time, in a virtual forum, or it's seeing an email where you suddenly know that you're out of alignment with a colleague and you've got to figure out the stress of how to solve this.  Does this mean I'm working in a different trajectory? And you start thinking about it and worrying about it.  Or it's getting a text from a child where you can't tell if they're just venting something and they're over it in 30 seconds and you worry about it for three hours, or if it's something significant. And we get hit,  all these things that seem small and we kind of work through it cause that's what we do as people. And in the frenzy, we probably go through 15, 20, 25, maybe 30 of these, you know, in a given day because of how interconnected we are. And we go home exhausted and we can't put a finger on what just happened anymore. Because it's not one big thing like our mind is used to picking up. It's this accumulation of small, and quite frankly, many of these sources of stress are people we care about. It's not the negative toxic boss. It's things that are coming at us through these abilities to be connected instantaneously so much. So what we can see is  the people that do better, they're really thinking about, how do I adapt that?

Measuring micro-stresses

Melanie Green (host):

That’s where Rob and his team come in.  They use analytics to measure what Rob calls the micro-stresses: these little  interactions in someone’s work day that add up.

Rob Cross:

We know there's 14 of these micro-stresses. So we create tables for people. And they're just  trying to isolate out, where are three or four of these that have become systemic enough that I should be doing something about? In the day-to-day frenzy, I just keep letting it go. But if I shifted those interactions or adapted the behavior, I did whatever, my life would actually get better. The stress would go down a notch. And then there's also a whole set of workarounds, what connections help people kind of rise above. But the heart of it for me is all the work on mindfulness and meditation and gratitude and those sorts of things are super important for people to be able to persist today. But at the heart they're allowing you to just persist better in the system you've created around you. And we need other ways of looking at this as we've kind of gone into this hyperconnected context, that help you think about how do I adapt the negative. How do I think about that and engage in connections that'll kind of keep me a little bit on a higher plane if you will, over time.

Melanie Green (host):

So in the end, the way forward is pretty clear. It’s about realizing that we’re all human. And that means we have the ability to do amazing things together. But it also means that we can get overwhelmed and exhausted. As hybrid teams, we need to communicate, not overwhelm. To collaborate and understand boundaries, choose the technology that will support our efforts seamlessly so that our teams are sustainable for the long term. We can find a balance that will let us work together, collaborating with our skills and talent like a well-tuned orchestra. You’ve been listening to Remote Works, Hybrid Survival Guide, an original podcast on Fieldwork by Citrix. Subscribe and come back in two weeks.  That’s at Citrix dot com slash remote works.

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