Innovation is a Team Sport

It’s been several weeks since social distancing became a standard term and working remotely became the norm. Sales leaders are grappling with managing their remote teams during COVID-19 and on through to recovery. However, we’re seeing many organizations try to work through pandemic-created issues solely at the senior or executive levels. Savvy leaders looking beyond the pandemic will leverage the wealth of innovation and creativity that can be found among those in the organization who work directly with clients and especially within the sales team.

Innovation almost never happens in isolation. In business, especially, innovative ideas are usually the result of multiple brains hard at work. Consider the work of Steven Johnson. His book, The Natural History of Innovation: Where Good Ideas Come From, looked at research by theoretical physicist Geoffrey West who proved that large cities produce exponentially more ideas than small cities. Johnson writes, “[Geoffrey] West and his team discovered … A city that was 10 times larger than its neighbor wasn’t 10 times more innovative; it was 17 times more innovative. A metropolis 50 times bigger than a town was 130 times more innovative.”

Extending that idea to the current situation, leaders can encourage innovative approaches to recovery by gathering cross-functional teams in virtual round tables. Bringing diverse people together will foster thinking about new ways to connect with your customers, build pipeline, and prepare for your recovery. The team can leverage its own talents within the organization or draw in partners, associates, and even customers outside of the organization, creating an ecosystem of ideas.

Clearly, who is on your team is important. Consider shaking things up and creating thinking groups that don’t often work together. Familiarity plays an important part in establishing the right dynamic, but new blood can also invigorate the team’s thinking, especially in the current environment, when client outreach and creative account planning are particularly important.

Greg Johnson, former vice president of product delivery and consulting at LexisNexis, likens team collaboration to a larger pool of thought. He describes it as a drawing of a target, with circles inside circles. “I draw a dot in the middle and say, ‘This is a rep’s perspective,’” he says.

He adds, “And this is not a criticism; this is reality. They only touch a certain number of accounts. And then you start drawing the circles around the accounts their manager has. If a manager has eight reps and he’s going on calls with eight reps, it’s a bigger circle and a bigger perspective. Their world is bigger. If you draw a larger circle around a regional manager, that person might be going all over the southeast. The rep has the smallest perspective, usually, and the more people you can get in a collaboration meeting, whether it’s sales managers or product managers or someone else, you expand that knowledge base exponentially. You broaden it in terms of the perspective and the experiences that they have in an industry or in a market or in a geography. And with those additional perspectives come more ideas and more strategies and additional approaches.”

Putting aside the hierarchy of team members is also critical to moving in a productive direction. Bill Chilton is a principal architect at Pickard Chilton, an award-winning architectural design firm. He’s led projects for corporations around the world including the ExxonMobil office complex in Houston, Texas; the Four Seasons Place in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency headquarters near Washington, D.C. His work is always the effort of a large team, consisting not only of the client, but people from many other companies including engineers and building contractors.

“Many of the people on the team that are essential to the collaboration aren’t trained as architects. They don’t need to be. It’s very much a collaboration between disparate voices that are each bringing their own expertise,” says Chilton.

“We’ve had great ideas for buildings that have come out of the structural engineer saying, ‘You know, I’ve been thinking about this, and what if we thought about the structure this way?’ That unlocks our thinking about the expression of the building in a way we never thought of before. But if we weren’t listening to that structural engineer, it would be easier to just say, ‘I’m going to design the building, and you’re just going to make sure it doesn’t fall over.’ We view the structural engineer as a creative, collaborative partner, and the process and the building are better as a result,” Chilton explains.

Bottom line: For sales leaders seeking to get their organizations innovating “beyond the curve” of COVID-19, collaboration via virtual round table leverages the mindshare of others in order to help generate new ideas that can reset and motivate your team. With participant roles existing independent of position and hierarchy, you will be surprised how an innovative approach will build bridges and collaboration across your company in a new way that transcends the current crisis.

Speaking of virtual round tables, join our weekly round table to share innovations and ideas about how to approach the changing environment and look to the future of sales.

This blog was updated on April 20, 2020. It was originally posted in January 2015 on TD.org’s Insights.