As they grapple with the shockwaves of 2020, businesses the world over are facing an array of complex problems laden with political, emotional and cultural dimensions, that they will need to overcome if they are to survive and thrive into 2021 and beyond. These range from restructuring in order to navigate the choppy financial waters, to addressing entrenched cultural challenges so they can build a more diverse and inclusive workforce.
When responding to complex problems, people typically own and support what they have a hand in creating. This generates alignment and buy-in, and most importantly, inspires lasting change. Such a collaborative approach is even more important in a virtual setting, as it helps leaders counter the disempowerment and disengagement that their employees may feel with a lack of face-to-face contact.
Many companies will feel that 2020 has presented them with a succession of seemingly insurmountable problems. But those that find meaningful ways to engage their employees in the design of solutions are likely to rise above adversity and to emerge as winners. To do this, organizations should focus on the following three principles when addressing complex problems in a virtual setting: create the right space, set the right conditions for honest contributions, and empower people to forge their own path.
Create the Space
Tackling many problems often requires balancing the needs of different stakeholders, and can provoke emotionally charged discussions – for example, an organizational design program that could change the nature of roles and reporting; or cultural transformation initiatives that require deep-rooted challenges to be systematically addressed. In a physical setting, our approach would be to convene a cross-section of the affected parties in collaborative working sessions. The issue would be broken into component parts and participants would work together in close proximity to create solutions.
In recent months, we have been successful in replicating this approach in a virtual setting with multi-day collaborative online sessions leveraging video conferencing and virtual canvas platforms. Providing a dedicated forum in which participants can put aside their day-to-day preoccupations and fully focus is key.
In doing so, it is important to ensure a mix of modes of interaction. For example, when discussing sensitive topics, a productive approach can be to provide individual reflection before digging into more detail in small groups. This gives time and space for individuals to digest, respond constructively, and have productive conversations. It also helps to avert overly heated discussions that can complicate and hinder constructive dialogue.
Set the Conditions for Honest Contribution
For emotionally and politically complex discussions, creating an atmosphere in which participants can be candid is key. In-person, informal chats over morning coffee or icebreaker activities can help break down boundaries. In a virtual setting, creating a sense of togetherness requires more thought. We recently ran an online event with a defense-sector client to equip over 150 of their leaders with the tools and capabilities to engage their people in a conversation around a major transformation.
We asked participants to join the meeting wearing something that reflected who they are as an individual and began the session by asking people to talk about their choices. From beekeeping suits to unicorn onesies, the outfits were a fascinating window into our participants’ lives! This activity sparked a conversation around the importance of personally authentic leadership and provided a shared experience that brought participants together and created an environment in which honest discussions could be had.
Openness is important, but when addressing sensitive topics, many individuals may be uncomfortable sharing certain points with a large group. In these cases, consider using supplementary platforms, such as online surveys or live-polling techniques. We took this approach when running a virtual focus group for a United Kingdom bank which wanted to improve their inclusion and diversity agenda. Overall, we ran a total of 20 sessions, each of which engaged with around 70 participants from across the organization, using anonymous submissions to give people the chance to speak freely.
As one participant said, “this was cathartic, and I got to say some things I’ve never voiced to anyone”. These anonymous and constructive conversations, supported by our data analytics capability, led to the identification of 25 recommendations that formed the basis for the bank’s inclusion and diversity strategy and plan.
Empower People to Forge Their Own Path
We have seen that during lockdown, with remote working and stretched leadership bandwidth, many organizations have empowered their employees by necessity: setting desired outcomes and timeframes, but leaving their employees to figure out the “how”. When seeking to effect a lasting change, this sense of ownership is key – and those who continue to empower their people as normality slowly resumes will reap the rewards.
We recently worked with a technology client that was redesigning their operating model, an extremely sensitive topic within their organization. We used breakout groups to enable targeted discussions, supported by a virtual canvas that captured their work. They then shared this output with other teams, using virtual sticky notes to record feedback and to enable further iteration. This open process helped to build empathy and create a sense of shared purpose in the pursuit of a common goal.
Taking a more co-creative approach helps generate momentum that lives beyond the particular online event. In the defense example, transformation had previously been viewed as the purview of senior leadership alone, and they were struggling to gain traction in the rest of the organization. It was key that the 150 leaders felt that transformation belonged to all of them, so they could engage their teams with authenticity and enthusiasm. We provided participants with a high-level narrative communicated through visually-engaging pictures and used virtual breakout groups to have teams reflect on how they would tailor the story to excite, inspire, and empower their different stakeholders after the event. We then regrouped in plenary, with participants role-playing the conversations to the group.
This collaborative and creative approach enabled our group to take ownership for the story of their transformation and tell it in a personally authentic way that would resonate for their teams. 90 percent of participants said that they had a greater understanding of their role in delivering the transformation, with 85 percent feeling that they were better equipped to empower their teams to support. Creating this breadth of change advocacy is critical in the success of any major transformation.
Creating Lasting Change
A common theme in many complex challenges is that participants feel powerless to effect change and believe that genuine solutions are unreachable. Conversations that lead to real and practical changes can help counteract this. This requires engaging those affected in the design of these solutions. Doing so will not only mean that the proposed solutions will be better thought through but, crucially, are more likely to stick.
When people see their own fingerprints on the design of the proposed outcomes, they are more likely to become committed to making them a reality. As we rebuild after COVID-19, and seek to create more equitable businesses and societies, this sense of togetherness will be vital in ensuring workable outcomes.