Finding ways to drive creative problem solving and innovation can be challenging, especially when your team is working remotely. But those organisations who are able to embed collaboration, customer co-creation, transparency and trust into their culture and working structures can make it possible. A study by economist E. Glenn Dutcher backs up the argument that creative work can be more effective when done remotely in the right type of organisation and online environments.
In this interview, we asked Stefanie Knoren, Innovation and Strategy Consultant, to share her input on how to successfully collaborate while working remote and what skills, tools and behaviours enhance innovation and creative thinking in an organisation.
Can you share a bit about your professional background and your current focus?
I have been in business for around 20 years where my career has been focused on digital and human-centric innovation in the wider sense, and in different types of roles and different types of aspects. Back when I started, digital was very different. You referred to digital as a marketing channel, but now, in a digitised world, it becomes the way you operate, provides value and how you engage your customers and employees. With that, my focus is bringing design, technology and business closer together.
I studied product management and fashion design and then completed an MA in design management at the University of the Arts, London. I do strongly believe that bringing a designers’ toolkit and thinking into the business context helps organizations to be relevant and create a visionary business which is sustainable in the future.
After diverse leadership roles in consulting and corporate organisations, I now work as an independent innovation and strategy consultant, leadership and team coach. My passion is to enable organisations for more customer and employee centricity by using a design-driven approach in strategy development as well as in experience and new products or service development.
I’ve worked for companies like adidas, BMW, Allianz, IKEA, Scout24, Azelis as well as VTG AG. These B2C and B2B companies operate in very diverse industries – from consumer goods, to finance, to online marketplaces, to chemicals and logistics. What they all have in common is that they want to get closer to customers and their needs, be able to anticipate them and deliver innovative solutions in order to get ahead of their competition. And they all want to drive change and transform their organisations from within to enable a new way of working.
A key specialism of yours is design thinking and business design and more specifically applying design thinking and creativity to solve business problems. What are the biggest current trends in this space?
Putting human needs into the centre of omnichannel experience, product & service design and marketing is a key differentiator for business, but that theory has been around for a while. To be successful, businesses need to make sure that they’re applying this mindset and theory with focus and a structured approach and create the right environment and infrastructure.
In my experience, success comes from picking a problem, or area of the business where it really hurts, where it really matters and ensure the commitment and involvement to solve it is at the highest level e.g. the board. Then bring people with business, technology and design skills together in cross-functional teams to address those areas with a structured innovation approach using a designers’ toolkit.
“I think that business leaders can benefit from designer skills to develop more relevant business strategies and then turn those strategies into action.”
We know design and co-creative processes traditionally required face-to-face time. How do you see these processes changing in this new era of remote/distance working?
I’ve been working in a type of hybrid situation for quite a while now. Already at adidas, we were working remotely as I was based in Amsterdam and was interacting with teams in Germany and all across the globe. I see this hybrid approach becoming a more usual thing now as during the lockdown we have been seeing the benefits of being able to do a lot or work without having to physically meet or travel all the time. Teamwork now centres around virtual visual collaboration spaces which have started to emerge, and teams are using them as their main working environments.
“There are some good tools and platforms that teams can use to co-create, self-organise and facilitate teamwork. But it’s also good to complement virtual collaborate with dedicated physical events where the teams get together and work in an intensive way.”
But the key to making this really successful is to put an even bigger focus on the transformational aspect of building a strong mindset and framework for teams and the organisation.
“You have to enable your team with the right structures to work in a self-organized way, transparently, collaboratively, productively and fruitfully.”
There’s a lot of trust when teams can work without control and you can foster that collaborative spirit with a strong vision or target picture, where they really want to work together to change something. Therefore, to allow for this collaboration, you need more than online tools, you need to rethink the way you approach leadership in hybrid working environments to be successful.
So that’s why I am currently collaborating with organisational coaches and development experts to ensure that teams and people get the support they need to develop a more agile mindset, next to learning and applying all the new tools and methods.
How can digital tools be used for collaboration and to drive innovation, especially during remote work?
I can’t work without visual collaboration tools such as Mural anymore where you have team rooms with online whiteboards that can be used for visual collaboration and for system thinking to build ideas and concepts iteratively. It’s great to be able to express your ideas visually and evolve them together.
I think these tools are helpful for all sorts of different teamwork, like strategy development, product and service design or even process improvements. You also need communication tools and project management tools that allow you to manage agile projects. For example, we use Asana, Teams, Zoom, and Slack, to stay in touch and manage tasks in our agile processes.
How should organisations change to be able to leverage creative problem solving and collaboration to find new innovative solutions as a remote team?
One of the most effective ways to change an organisation is to get the right mix of support and commitment from the top, and the right energy to change from the bottom up. But it’s crucial that there are high management support and the will to reflect the change in the organisational structures.
“Siloed traditional organizational structures and reward systems are the biggest barriers for the change to happen in my point of view and prevent collaboration.”
A way to change that could be adjusting the way that integrated teams are being rewarded to facilitate and encourage change. Are we rewarding people for working collaboratively or are we rewarding people to work for their own KPIs and success of their own siloed kingdoms?
On a team level, it is not enough to just provide training for 2 days. You really need to work intensively with the teams in a very integrated way and on real business problems to enable them to apply the new methods and make them their own in order to enable real change or innovation. That is the same whether you are working remotely or in a physical setting.
“If you don’t practice empathy, collaboration, creative problem solving and customer insight analysis and validation into your daily business, it won’t make a difference if your organisation is physical or virtual.”
But if you create a collaborative culture over time, it will also be easier to adjust to remote work because you will already have the right spirit of trust, ownership and self-organisation. People in your organisation will have a shared goal, for example, create a better customer experience, based on joint objectives. They will have that common goal and work towards it regardless of being physical or remote.
Organisations should also put practices in place that allow people to work remotely and don’t punish remote work. They need to have the technology in place that really enables their remote workers to be part of it all and drive a collaborative mindset.
Can you share advice or tips on how teams can switch to online meetings that facilitate creativity and innovation?
I would start out by seeking advice or some facilitation from someone that has successfully switched their team to work virtually. There is also a lot of good tips when you start searching online. Don’t hesitate to ask for help and read up cases for virtual collaboration. And then, just get your hands dirty and try it.
You can only start to be creative and innovative by applying creativity and then learn from it – it’s a ‘fail to learn’ approach. It’s about trying new things and then getting feedback and learning from it to validate your approach and see what works for you.
Be bold and be courageous. It’s all about having the right mindset and then using a structured approach to turn that creativity into innovation.
What skills do you think business & strategy consultants should embrace in order to meet the challenges that companies are currently facing?
There are a few core skills that can be successful in this area. Business leaders can learn from a designer’s mindset and toolkit because designers embody certain skills which can help business, especially in complex and uncertain times.
This is specifically true for developing strategy where you cannot just build your business strategy by looking at what has worked in the past (as we see quite clearly in the current situation which is totally disruptive).
“You can’t predict the future, so you need to imagine possible futures and foresight can help with that. Foresight is in the arts as it is based on imagination, not science. I think it is important to be able to creatively imagine a range of possible futures and the potential role and organisation could play in that and the value it could bring in that future.”
Another important skill is empathy. To be able to observe people and have empathy with their needs and (often hidden) desires. Don’t ask them what they want, but observe the pains and the challenges that they might have. Put yourself in the shoes of others.
There are many techniques you can use to do this, for example, observation and interviews where you use explorative and open questions – try to be as open and curious as possible. These are all techniques that designers use to come up with new ideas that are new and that really make a difference in people’s lives. They’re not asking people, “do you want this?”, but they are asking them, “what is it that’s challenging you? What is it that you would like to improve? What is it you are trying to achieve?”. You’re trying to define the problem which becomes your brief of what you actually need to solve.
Visual facilitation is also an important skill, together with system thinking. Next to expressing ideas, these skills help us to determine how things relate to each other and how you can cluster information to get insights. This is applying system theory which brings people together on one common ground and strategic vision. It helps to use strong visuals and visual facilitation when you bring business leaders with different backgrounds and viewpoints together. Get them to have a discussion and align, help them to understand and build solutions together.
This is especially useful when businesses have to react fast to changing customer or employee needs, especially now, in the time of a crisis, where you have to react really quickly.
Other important skills from a designers’ toolkit are of course creativity and prototyping which enables teams to validate ideas and concepts with customers or other target audiences before investing heavily in the wrong direction.