The 5 Growing Pains of Global Innovation Recap

Design Museum LIVE • June 2020

By Sara Magalio

In June, our Design Museum LIVE event focused on the collaborative challenges that companies can face as they grow and change over time, and some tactics that businesses can employ to ease these “growing pains of global innovation.” The event was facilitated by Patricia Wang, a senior design researcher at Steelcase, a Michigan-based company that offers services including architecture, furniture, and technology products, all designed to help people reach their full potential. Wang shared research on global collaboration in companies that has been conducted over the past few years, and she revealed that there have been trends toward shifting organizational structures to increase the speed of development and meet the needs of new customers through more diverse thinking. In working to increase the speed and variability of development, Wang identified five growing pains in globally distributed innovation, and she provided suggestions on how companies can overcome these challenges and continue to evolve, even when many businesses must keep all of their interactions virtual to adhere to social distancing protocol in the wake of COVID-19.

1. Trust across distance

Wang identified the first growing pain of global innovation as, “developing trust across distance, despite limited synchronous interactions.” She noted that especially now, with many companies using Zoom or other video conferencing services to connect with coworkers, developing trust becomes difficult, because surprise, serendipitous, in-person workplace interactions are what build trust traditionally. Wang added that especially in more creative environments, this spontaneous collaboration is sorely missed. Wang then challenged participants to consider ways that their respective companies have been working to build trust in the workplace remotely, through tactics like virtual mixers and randomly pairing co-workers across different departments to foster collaboration that may not normally happen in a given work day. One participant shared that her company has hosted a “DJ competition,” where colleagues team up and draft playlists on Youtube that respond to certain prompts, such as “best songs to listen to while working from home.” The company then comes together through a virtual hangout to share their playlists and vote on the best selections. 

2. Overcoming aversion to creative conflict 

For the second growing pain, “overcoming aversion to creative conflict,” Wang noted that even in physical spaces, it is sometimes difficult to discern where someone is coming from in respect to a specific idea, and that it can be hard to build trust with someone in the workplace who you don’t really know. Despite this, Wang emphasized that creative conflict can be difficult to navigate, but is necessary to the evolution of a company. One suggestion Wang made to overcome creative conflict is utilizing the Collective Genius template, created by Linda Hill, which outlines three capabilities that are necessary for engaging successfully in creative conflict. These are:

  1. Creative Agility — gathering a broad range of knowledge appropriate to the problem
  2. Creative Abrasion — confronting diverging frames of reference and priorities
  3. Creative Resolution — reaching a higher, more integrated solution

Wang also made the point that creative conflict is easier to circumvent in the virtual work space, but that emotional connections between colleagues can suffer as a result. “Work is emotional,” Wang said. “While technology like Zoom and Mural have solved some of the mechanics of collaboration, it has not solved the emotional connection.” Reinvigorating these emotional connections and creative conflicts that would normally happen more naturally in an in-person work environment was yet another challenge that Wang cited as stemming from adjusted work environments in a time of social distancing. 

3. Integrated decision-making 

Wang noted that in the third growing pain, “integrated decision-making,” decision-making needs to evolve to account for complex interdependencies. Wang emphasized that effective decision-making requires taking the time to identify key constraints of the different stakeholders and inventing new solutions that fit them, all while making intentional compromises for the greater good. Wang remarked that even the more natural, everyday activities in a work day can create power imbalances. She cited a specific issue that is exacerbated in the virtual workplace as the potential disconnect in access to information resources. Wang explained that sometimes, even if unintentional, those who have more access to information needed to make crucial decisions may fail to share this information with the entire team, creating power imbalances in the decision-making process. When this information is stored in a computer at someone’s home office and not even in a communal workplace, this challenge can become all the more pronounced. However, Wang did note that virtual features such as live polls and recording meetings so individuals who were not present can watch later are tools that can help rectify power imbalances. 

4. Neural network

“Neural network,” the fourth growing pain, involves shifting a company’s tendencies from more isolated thinking to a more interconnected intellectual approach, making it easier to leverage the collective intelligence of the organization and incite progress. Wang noted that hierarchical barriers and functional barriers stemming from a company’s organization can create “islands of communication” that cut off the neural network. One example of an active step toward fostering a neural network that Wang cited is the idea of “poster days” in a format similar to a school science fair, where colleagues take the time to individually share what they are working on and what they are learning with the rest of the company. When these lessons are integrated by other individuals or teams in the company, this can help projects to evolve more quickly and efficiently than if projects are allowed to proceed in isolation and are not revealed to the rest of the company for critique until after they are completed.

5. New expectations, old constraints 

The fifth and final growing pain, “new expectations, old constraints,” acknowledges that organizations may not have the structures to support unfamiliar and disruptive ideas. Wang noted that even with innovative leaders that work to inspire a new, creative vision, an organization may not yet have the fully realized design needed to see this vision to fruition. Employees who attempt to bridge this gap may realize this new vision does not have the adequate support needed to succeed at that moment, and while some may take the leap of faith and try to reach the goal anyway, Wang asserted that this tenacity requires a willingness to take on personal risk that may generate anxiety. Wang presented a simple solution to ease such anxiety and support risk taking through creating a designated space where such innovation is explicitly encouraged. As an example, Wang referenced a corporation with all blue branding and furniture that purchased a red couch as a reminder to employees to think outside the box when sitting on this couch, and that the company encourages such deviation. While distinctive office furniture is not currently a way in which companies can inspire creativity, one attendee shared that her company encourages innovation through a “failing forward” mentality, in which especially the leaders in a company make visible all of their attempts to solve a problem, including the failed ones, thus allowing the business to adapt very quickly in light of the situation and for workers to move forward toward a solution with less fear, knowing that even the leaders in an organization are not immune to failure.