Innovating Apart Requires a People-First Mindset and Facilitative Leadership

by Rita E. Garwood Vol. 48 No. 6 2021
Software is often the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of remote collaboration, but technology should be the last item on your list. Peter Haug, Deborah Reuben and Mark Tomaselli explain why changing your mindset, placing people first and becoming an effective facilitator are the first steps toward effectively collaborating from a distance.

Peter Haug,
ASPIRE Product Manager,

We were all thrown headfirst into remote work in 2020. For many it was a new experience that came with various hurdles. During the breakout session, “Leading the Future of Work — Innovating Apart,” at the Equipment Leasing and Finance Association’s Operations and Technology Conference, Peter Haug, ASPIRE product manager for LTi, said that many people still view remote work as a challenge.

According to Haug, normalizing the process of remote work is essential because those who can work together in a distributed way will have more flexibility when it comes to achieving their goals. Haug pointed out that the COVID-19 pandemic did not cause a need for digital collaboration and innovation; rather, it showed the level of preparedness for our inevitable future.

Haug covered several factors that make collaborating and innovating digitally apart a relevant topic. According to the 2021 Q3 U.S. Economic Outlook of the Equipment

Deborah Reuben, CLFP, CEO and Founder, TomorrowZone

Leasing and Finance Foundation (ELFF), equipment and software investment growth was expected to increase by 13.3% in 2021. Additionally, 82% of U.S. employees want to work from home at least part-time after the pandemic.1 Furthermore, an estimated 25% to 30% of the workforce will be working from home multiple days per week by the end of 2021.2

Monitor recently conducted a poll on LinkedIn asking respondents about their company’s plan for the remainder of 2021. Of the group that responded, 59% said their companies were taking a hybrid approach, 28% worked for companies that were entirely remote and 13% had resumed in-person working conditions.

According to the second quarterly COVID-19 Impact and Recovery Survey of the ELFF, on average, 69% of equipment finance staff members were working from home at the beginning of 2021, and respondents expected more than half of remote employees to return to the office by the beginning of 2022, reducing remote work to 31%.

Haug highlighted a recent phenomenon facing many employers in 2021, dubbed ‘The

Mark Tomaselli, Chief Information Officer, QuickFi

Great Resignation,’ in which record numbers of employees have opted to leave jobs that required them to be in person or employers whom they did not trust, among other reasons.

Adopting an Innovative Approach

While software tools can provide a tremendous advantage if approached in the right way, Haug noted the importance of being outcome driven. Haug said the direction from which you approach your intended outcome is important.

If you are looking for a different outcome, you must do things differently, according to Mark Tomaselli, chief information officer at QuickFi, who said this will translate into a lot of experimenting. During the experimentation process, Tomaselli said we will inevitably discover many ways how not to do something, which is a roundabout way to say that we will fail. To overcome the innate tendency of many to view failure in a negative light, Tomaselli suggested adopting a new mindset.

If you begin with a vision that’s very different, Tomaselli noted that you will have no choice but to innovate your way to the outcome you have imagined. He suggested working backward from your goal and throwing away things that worked in the past that may not help you reach your vision. Conversely, if you work toward a vision from where you are, he said you will end up with iteration instead of innovation.

Tomaselli said there is no “secret sauce” for innovation. Instead, he believes innovation is the result of a lot of “hard and messy” work. Haug noted that innovation requires dedicated time, shared visions for a desired outcome, empathy, collaboration, trust and courage. Ensuring that your entire team is on board is an essential component. Haug said if everyone on the team knows what you’re trying to achieve, then everyone can help achieve that goal. Additionally, innovation cannot happen if you don’t hear about others’ challenges, and Haug said all collaborators must be able to trust that they can be open with their team.

Putting People First

Deborah Reuben, CLFP, CEO and founder of TomorrowZone, said it’s important to think in a way that puts people first. Before beginning a project, it’s important to understand who you are collaborating with as well as their context. Reuben said it’s vital to ensure that all collaborators can have a conversation in which each person shares their best thoughts. She noted that creating a safe space where new ideas and sharing is welcome is key to creating an effective collaboration.

Once collaborators have a good understanding of each other, facilitation is extremely important. Reuben said “digital magnifies dysfunction.” When you facilitate virtually, she suggested making sure you have planned for a way to share understanding between collaborators.

Reuben also suggested collaborators focus on outcomes and use a jobs-to-be-done methodology or design thinking tools. Reuben said taking this approach will enable you to create great collaborator experiences so you can create the outcomes you came together for in the first place. According to Reuben, it’s important to remember that collaboration never starts with the tools because you must think about the tools last, while thinking about the collaborator experience first.

Advantages of Collaborating Apart

Tomaselli said that each company will have a different experience while working apart. But for the most part, remote work tends to be more efficient. Tomaselli pointed out that in-person conversations tend to be more verbose, while you can communicate more quickly via real-time communication tools like Slack. Tomaselli noted that writing and responding to long emails and/or waiting to discuss an important topic at a meeting are innovation killers.

Haug said ideas can keep flowing when collaborators engage in asynchronous collaboration, such as sending an instant message to a colleague while an idea is top of mind instead of walking over to a colleague’s desk only to discover that they are on the phone.

Reuben suggested adopting and optimizing a toolkit for digital collaboration that includes tools in various categories. To illustrate this point, she suggested thinking about the tools in your kitchen. Since forks are not the best tool for every kitchen task, we must have a tool for every job.

When adopting and optimizing your toolkit, Reuben said it’s important to challenge your assumptions by asking questions. What scenarios are best for synchronous or asynchronous communication? Should virtual collaboration sessions be shorter than you think? Reuben said 90 minutes is the “sweet spot” for these meetings. How do time zones come into play? How much space between meetings is best? How can you leverage multi-tasking instead of frowning upon it?

Intentionally learning forward is vital, according to Reuben. She suggested checking in on collaborators’ experiences before, during and after implementing tools and making a plan for onboarding new collaborators onto your tools. Providing opportunities for everyone to build capability and skill by getting in their reps and adjusting along the way as you learn more is also important, according to Reuben. Haug advised keeping the goal you are trying to achieve in mind and continuing to make any adjustments that will be required to get there.

Haug went over the various categories of tools to include in your toolkit, including:

  • General collaboration (Microsoft Teams, Slack or Zoom)
  • Digital whiteboards (Google Jamboard, Mural or Miro)
  • File sharing (Microsoft OneDrive, Dropbox or Google Drive)
  • Task Management (Trello, Microsoft Planner or
  • Strategic Alignment (Ally, Workboard)
  • Team Building (Anthym or Cozy Juicy Real)

Reuben said your brain is the most important tool for digital collaboration. She suggested selecting the tool that makes the most sense for what you are trying to achieve.

Next Steps

After the event, Monitor asked Haug and Reuben what attendees should be focusing on after receiving the information presented. “Collaboration is instrumental to progress and innovation,” Haug said. “The ability to collaborate digitally enables you, your team and your organization to thrive in various circumstances. Digital collaboration among a distributed team can also increase your ability to include a more diverse set of voices, many times at a lower cost than in-person collaboration.”

“Digital collaboration challenges and solutions are not new,” Reuben said. “What is new is the rapid adoption and need to shift our thinking about what’s now possible when collaborating virtually. Digital isn’t going away; it’s going to accelerate. At TomorrowZone, we focus on digital collaboration mastery as a critical core capability for the future and practice it in everything we do.

“It’s not about software, it’s about facilitative leadership, a secret weapon for engaging groups to successfully deal with complex situations. Instead of magnifying dysfunctional meeting practices as you go digital, you can bring in an outside facilitator for key meetings or consider leveling up your own facilitation skills. You can read up on facilitation methods, take a class or join a learning community to experiment with new ways to collaborate remotely.

“Many professionals spend thousands of hours in meetings and group discussions, but few invest time to develop skills for effective meetings. Expanding your field of possibilities and practicing to develop new skills can help you drive better outcomes from your digital collaborations.”

1Global Work from Home Experience Survey, Global Workplace Analytics & Iometrics, 2020.

2Work-At-Home After Covid-19—Our Forecast, Global Workplace Analytics & Iometrics, 2020.

Rita E. Garwood is editor in chief of Monitor.

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