Connecting dispersed teams
My colleagues and I have conducted research on a handful of cross-industry innovation projects over the past seven years, most notably in studying two projects focused on building state of the art greenfield smart cities. One was remarkably successful, and more detail can be found in a Harvard Business School case study. The other, more audacious and technologically driven, struggled to get off the ground. The brainchild of two tech entrepreneurs and a diverse team of experts from real estate, construction, architecture, technology corporations and city government, the latter project is the subject of the in-depth case study of cross-industry collaboration that my coauthor, Susan Reynolds, and I profiled in our new book, Building the future: Big teaming for audacious innovation.
Part of the innovation challenge lies in coping with the wide range of expertise cross-industry projects encompass. Participants live in very different intellectual worlds and speak different technical languages. Everyone knows and expects these technical differences. But differences in norms and values across industries are equally significant. Most people take the culture within their profession for granted. Within an industry, people share assumptions about things like what goals are important, how people at different levels should interact, expected time frames, quality standards, and so forth. The culture of civil engineering, for example, is very different from that of software, though both fields are deeply technical. Conflicting assumptions, usually unstated, lead to misunderstanding and stalled progress. In short, cross-industry teams suffer from culture clash. For people to innovate successfully, they need to understand each other’s expectations and skills. This rarely happens spontaneously. In other words, it takes leadership.
The most successful projects in my experience share three leadership practices that help them overcome the technical and interpersonal barriers: