A global team of various nationalities and ethnicities communicate for virtual collaboration with superimposed video windows

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Is creativity a mindset, a process, or an outcome?

The debate rages on, but if you’re a manager hoping to nurture creativity in a global team, approaching creativity as a process will serve you well for virtual collaboration.

That said, there are some unique considerations that will make or break the creative process in a post-pandemic business landscape. The future of work is a distributed workforce, increased use of AI and other technologies, and more team diversity than ever. Creativity will be a key differentiator.

At a recent webinar hosted by GLOBIS USA, Darren Menabney shared his insights as a GLOBIS University lecturer and lead of global employee engagement at Ricoh. Creative output, he says, is influenced by where we create, who we create with, when we create, and how intentional we are about that creation. Managers hoping to align these elements with team goals must do two things:

  1. Know how to work with diverse global teams
  2. Get better at harnessing creativity remotely

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Cross-cultural interactions, while fascinating on vacation and fun between friends, can be a real challenge in the workplace (real or virtual) with deadlines and bosses constantly looming. Those pressures won’t go away. So Menabney suggests starting by confirming your own understanding of what culture is. He suggests internalizing culture in just a few words:

“Culture is ‘How we do things around here.’ And ‘here’ can be a country (national culture), a company (corporate culture), or even a team (team culture). Culture works on different levels.”

With culture operating above and below the surface, the possibility for miscommunication and frustration is high. It’s one of the reasons why managers fear a remote work future. How do you get anything done when your team says the same thing in half a dozen different ways? Or when certain members of your team wait for consensus, rather than speaking up? Or don’t seem to respect deadlines?

Menabney emphasizes that “this is where diversity begins to come into it.”

Under the right conditions (and management), diverse perspectives are complementary. They help you avoid groupthink and boost that creativity your team will so sorely need. Here are a few ways to manage your team so virtual collaboration will lead to benefits (not just headaches) crossing cultures.

Make culture maps.

On global teams, diversity on the country level is the biggest immediate barrier. If you’re new to breaking down culture into understandable components, Erin Meyer’s The Culture Map is a good place to start. It proposes eight scales for visualizing cultures:

  • Communicating: Low context vs. High context
  • Evaluating: Direct feedback vs. Indirect feedback
  • Persuading: Applications-first vs. Principles-first
  • Leading: Egalitarian vs. Hierarchical
  • Deciding: Consensual vs. Top-down
  • Trusting: Task-based vs. Relationship-based
  • Disagreeing: Confrontational vs. Avoid confrontation
  • Scheduling: Linear time vs. Flexible time
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A culture map of a global team, as presented by Darren Menabney at a GLOBIS USA webinar about managing virtual collaboration for creativity
Darren Menabney shows the variety of culture maps for a single team. | ©GLOBIS

When making your culture maps, don’t stop at mapping individuals. Menabney suggests making an overall team average map, then comparing that to individuals to see who’s on the fringes.

And don’t forget to include a culture map for yourself. You are, after all, part of the team.

“Using this culture map framework, you can learn a lot about yourself,” says Menabney. “You can also learn a lot about your team and how your team behaves, communicates, builds trust, and views leadership. Using this virtual team knowledge, you can understand how to harness the creativity that’s inherent in this team’s diversity.”

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Embrace (some) conflict and confrontation to build trust.

Interpersonal conflict and confrontation are negative influencers you probably don’t want on your team. But for the purposes of fostering creativity, healthy disagreement is how you get new ideas.

Conflict Management

Conflicts in the workplace are inevitable. But they can lead to positive outcomes if they’re managed well. Check out this online course for a two-step process that can help you manage conflict successfully.

Managers who provide the freedom to disagree toward a common goal simultaneously build trust and psychological safety within a team.

“The more you trust your team,” says Menabney, “the more likely you are to have psychological safety, take risks, and volunteer new ideas.”

Therefore, managers need to understand how each team member builds trust.

"Understand that task conflict can aid creativity, but mustn't become interpersonal conflict."

“As a team leader,” says Menabney, “the focus should be on showing trust in people’s professionalism, in their skills, and being more hands off. Amongst the team members, the balance of trust is on emotional bonds. If you structure a team that way, you’ll have a team that has more trust, is more inclusive, and can harness that diversity, as well.”

Be patient

The value of diversity is well documented, but it’s worth noting that the benefits of diversity don’t come at the flip of a switch.

“As all the research shows, diverse teams are more creative—particularly teams that are culturally or ethnically diverse,” says Menabney. “But it takes more work to lead or manage such a team.”

It will take time to navigate your team’s diversity, and a bit more still to apply it successfully to creative output. As you do this, remember that you need to build awareness of your own cultural and cognitive biases. Hold yourself to the same inclusive standard as your team, and you’ll see why patience is so important.

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Six different people working from home at desks, chairs, or hammocks, managing global teams with virtual collaboration

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How to Process Creativity

Harnessing creativity for virtual collaboration often relies on mastering the process of creativity. That process can be broken down into an iterative cycle of convergent thinking and divergent thinking.

Divergent Thinking

Divergent thinking is the “there are no bad ideas” stage, traditionally realized in a brainstorming session. Here, it’s about quantity over quality and never judging ideas—the ones others bring to the table or your own.

Convergent Thinking

Convergent thinking is applying filters or criteria to narrow down the output of your divergent thinking session. Here, you can start (respectfully) adding “But…” to different ideas and consider various angles for how they will or won’t work.

Brainstorming vs. Brainwriting for Creative Thinking

Traditional brainstorming doesn’t always work, Menabney says. Some people naturally dominate discussion; others hang back. There are those, as well, who misunderstand brainstorming as a problem-solving activity, or those who try to whittle down the best ideas as fast as possible.

Brainwriting may be the answer.

Brainwriting can enhance some of the biggest benefits of virtual teams. After all, there’s no reason brainstorming needs to be done in person, or even in synchronous online meetings. If you leverage the diversity within your team, as well as technology like virtual whiteboards, you’ll have the ideal creative coworking space for your remote global team.

Here’s how it works for virtual collaboration:

  1. Team members individually draw up ideas when and where they’re most comfortable.
  2. The team shares ideas (anonymously and online) by a deadline.
  3. Team members review the ideas on their own and vote for the ones they like.
  4. Filter the top ideas through convergent thinking.
  5. Repeat as necessary.

If you’re still reluctant to give up those boisterous brainstorming sessions, remind yourself that AI, remote work, and diversity will be the norm going forward. Harnessing creativity on a level playing field of virtual collaboration is how you remain competitive—and productive.

Leading Virtual Teams Means Nurturing a Creative Coworking Space

Even before the pandemic, the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report was listing creativity (along with analytical thinking and innovation) among the top ten job skills going forward.

One reason, says Menabney, is the use of AI in the workplace: “One thing we can do much better than AI and machines is be creative.”

Managers have a responsibility to ensure virtual collaboration in their teams includes creative options that promote team goals and corporate objectives. What’s more, every team deserves its own creative corner. In the coming years, the challenges of virtual teams will be harnessing the power of cross-cultural interactions and ensuring the creative process is working like a well-oiled machine. Do that, and virtual collaboration will be something we can all look forward to.

“Creativity is doing anything slightly better—1% faster, 1% cheaper,” says Menabney. “It’s something we can all do.”

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