Our Guide to the Winter 2021 Issue

These summaries will help you navigate our winter 2021 lineup.

Reading Time: 7 min 


When Collaboration Fails and How to Fix It

Rob Cross and Inga Carboni

Collaborative failures can stem from a variety of conditions. Sometimes they are woven into the fabric of groups when they are formed, perhaps because team members’ incentives are misaligned or decision rights haven’t been defined. Sometimes they develop as groups evolve and their members interact in certain situations, such as when a group expands beyond the limits of its structure or gets bombarded with too many priorities.

But trends that support and drive more collaboration are gaining momentum, including the increasing use of agile methodologies, the delayering of hierarchies, and the dramatic transition to remote work in response to COVID-19. This makes understanding why groups struggle and how to address the problems more important than ever.

Research by the authors finds that leaders are unleashing their teams without establishing the conditions needed to support collaboration, resulting in teams falling into one of six patterns of collaborative dysfunction that have a negative impact on performance. Moreover, when collaborative efforts break down, leaders too often rely on conventional interventions that may not address the true nature of their problems. The authors offer specific strategies for working through each dysfunction.

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Are Your Team Members Lonely?

Constance N. Hadley and Mark Mortensen

Despite the prevalence of team-based collaboration in the workplace, many employees feel isolated on the job. Loneliness is often thought of as a personal issue, but it is an organizational one as well. A lack of social connection with friends, family members, or coworkers can have serious consequences, including health problems, reduced creativity, and flawed decision-making. People who feel lonely cannot do their best work, which means that teams with lonely members are not operating at their peak levels either.

Research by the authors has found that the composition, duration, and staffing of teams can trigger or exacerbate feelings of social disconnection. The features of modern teamwork — fluid composition, modularized roles, part-time commitment, and short duration — tend to foster shallow, narrow, and ephemeral relationships rather than true human connections.

Managers should view loneliness as a systemic and structural problem, one that may require a new approach to teamwork. This can include proactively monitoring the psychological well-being of employees and nurturing “home base teams” for employees who crave deeper connections to colleagues.

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Virtual Collaboration Won’t Be the Death of Creativity

Leigh Thompson

In 2020, teams shifted from in-person to electronic brainstorming via Zoom, WebEx, and other tools. Creativity, though, does not have to suffer from a lack of in-person collaboration. Instead, virtual collaboration actually has the potential to improve group creativity.

Virtual collaboration isn’t at odds with well-established ideas about what drives creativity. These include findings that individuals are more creative than groups and that working within constraints sparks creative thinking.

Electronic tools stretch participants beyond their usual ways of thinking. Facilitators can control the size of breakout groups, use tools that enforce time limits, assign “seating arrangements” (or use random sorting), and have participants anonymously contribute to virtual white boards in ways that stimulate group inventiveness and yield a larger variety of ideas. All these restrictions are likely to boost creativity.

Virtual communication isn’t a cure-all for collaborations that were already troubled. But it provides benefits that many of us didn’t realize or pursue in pre-COVID-19 times.

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The Data Problem Stalling AI

Gregory Vial, Jinglu Jiang, Tanya Giannelia, and Ann-Frances Cameron

Advanced analytics and artificial intelligence promise to generate insights that will help organizations stay competitive. But their ability to do that is heavily dependent on the availability of good data. Although many leaders focus on the accuracy and completeness of data to determine its quality, the authors’ research found that the degree to which it is accessible by machines — one of the dimensions of data quality — appears to be a bigger challenge in taking AI out of the lab and into the business.

The crux of the issue is that often developers collecting data early in a project fail to consider whether that data will be easily accessible once a system is put into production. And while data accessibility is too often treated exclusively as an IT problem, it is actually a management problem aggravated by misconceptions about the role of data accessibility in AI.

The authors offer three recommendations to alleviate the problem: Develop stakeholders’ understanding of data accessibility as a business issue; acknowledge the value of organizational data for AI; and consider data accessibility throughout the AI life cycle.

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The Four Competencies Every IT Workforce Needs

Ayse Karaevli, Serden Özcan, and Anja Wintermeyer

Today’s IT operations must be strategic partners with business leaders. They need to help execute digital strategies, and they need to be able to capitalize on emerging technologies that will allow their businesses to thrive.

But many IT departments are simply not prepared for these new demands. The talent gap in the IT workforce is not about a lack of specific technology skills but instead about being able to solve business problems and create new opportunities for technology-enabled businesses. Four abilities are crucial: being able to learn to manage role complexity; connect, collaborate, and integrate knowledge swiftly; embrace and manage contradictory demands; and master continuous learning and adaptation.

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What a Crisis Teaches Us About Innovation

Elsbeth Johnson and Fiona Murray

In the early months of the COVID-19 crisis, organizations innovated at a faster pace than usual. Field hospitals were built in under a week; potential vaccines went into clinical trials at near-record speeds.

The authors review the conditions that characterize innovating in a crisis: a sudden sense of urgency; a narrowing of focus to just a few priorities; an “all hands on deck” approach that often brings in a new diversity of perspectives; an embrace of experimentation and a willingness to accept failure; and an ability to commit to intense effort over a short period of time.

Managers can generate inventive creativity in non-crisis times by focusing on a limited set of priorities and developing more tolerance for slack, among other actions.

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The Promise of Self-Sufficient Production

Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld, Alan Gershenfeld, and Neil Gershenfeld

Global supply chains have revealed their vulnerabilities during the pandemic, but disruptions have also driven experiments in local self-sufficiency.

Self-sufficient production — defined as producing locally while connecting globally — has proved to be an important source of essential equipment, parts, and supplies, filling the gap between DIY and mass manufacturing.

The authors show how a global ecosystem of digital fabrication facilities — both community-based “fab labs” and commercial operations — stepped up to produce personal protective equipment, spare parts, and medical devices for health care facilities as the pandemic began to surge. These production processes demonstrate a promising way forward: As technologies get better, faster, and cheaper, there is the potential for widely distributed access to modern means of production.

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Accelerating Supply Chain Scenario Planning

Nitin Joglekar and Shardul Phadnis

The pandemic showcases a need to make slow-moving supply chains nimbler. As disruption spread across the world in early 2020, most organizations had limited vision as to how they could continue operating, much less start preparing a return to normal.

Many organizations use supply chain scenario planning to help them “see” actionable paths, and this type of planning has become faster, nearer term, more inclusive, and digital.

Including supply chain partners is even more valuable. A collaborative scenario planning approach can minimize debates within a single organization and speed decision-making throughout the supply chain. Joint efforts with the goal of just-in-case preparedness can empower companies to adapt more quickly and more accurately to surprise changes.

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How Would-Be Category Kings Become Commoners

Rory McDonald and Keith Krach

Category creation is the holy grail in business. Companies that succeed in building new categories of business with completely new models generate wealth beyond their founders’ wildest dreams. The spoils are so great that the winners are often referred to as category kings.

But while innovative companies may succeed in pioneering new markets, they often fail to dominate the categories they create and instead lose their way during the aggressive marketing and category-creation stage.

The authors interviewed entrepreneurs, corporate innovation chiefs, market analysts, and journalists to understand how this happens. They found three common mistakes: sloppy attacks on the establishment; promoting the category without refining the “job” that customers might “hire” the product or service to do; and embracing trendy but flawed market labels.

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The New Elements of Digital Transformation

Didier Bonnet and George Westerman

Advances in digital technology and the shift to digital activity accelerated by COVID-19 make digital mastery more essential than ever. The authors’ framework, updated from their landmark 2014 article, reflects changes in the state of digital transformation over the past six years. They found that digital masters still must cultivate two capabilities: digital capability, which enables them to use innovative technologies to improve elements of the business, and leadership capability, which enables them to envision and drive organizational change in systematic and profitable ways.

At the same time, new elements of digital capability have come to the fore. These include placing greater emphasis on the employee experience and having a core, externally facing digital platform that underpins all the other elements in a company. And leaders must adopt a more systematic approach to strategy and execution.

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