How to maintain a human-centered focus in a fully remote world

Building a remote culture doesn’t start with tools — it starts with principles.

A dispersed team collaborates through a conference call
Illustrated by Jessica Tremblay

As we all navigate the effects and impact of the current state of the world, the question is raised around how we build effective remote and distributed cultures. At IBM, we’ve found an application of human-centered practices that enable our large, globally-dispersed teams to do just that — co-create delightful user experiences that make business impact at the scale of our own enterprise and that of our clients.

To support teams and organizations navigating this period of remote collaboration, we’re temporarily opening up free access to everything on our Enterprise Design Thinking site. This provides actionable guidance through trainings and tools to get your team in the mindset of human-centered innovation, even when everyone is suddenly remote.

It’s important to remember that what really makes design thinking and human-centered design impactful, more so than activities and workshops, is the environment and mindset it promotes. It’s easy to focus on tools and techniques — they are the manifestation of a design thinking mindset and an effective part of it. It’s the mindset, however, that allows teams to align and find unique and effective solutions to real human problems, no matter the situation.

An environment that truly fosters innovation takes time and effort to build. Translating a pre-virus, in-person culture into a fully remote one is not just a copy-paste exercise with a few additional conference calls and screen-sharing moments. It requires thoughtful consideration of what it really means for everyone to be in different locations, still collaborate effectively, and create business and user outcomes.

So, the question is, how do you establish and maintain a remote culture that leads to creativity and innovation?

With the large, often geographically-dispersed teams we have at IBM, we have had ample opportunity to iterate and learn over the years on what works well and what doesn’t — and you can take advantage of our lessons learned.

It starts with your principles.

Principles are the first piece to building a culture. They are what allow us to quickly make decisions even in circumstances we haven’t encountered before. IBM has infused its culture with 3 principles from Enterprise Design Thinking: a focus on user outcomes, restless reinvention, and diverse, empowered teams. Each of these principles was selected for a specific reason because of how it helps us build a culture of innovation. These principles might be a place for your own organization to start with, or you might evolve a set of your own principles in order to drive an innovative culture.

We’ve spent years embedding these principles in our teams’ operations, from changing the way we frame and measure problems to how we build and structure teams. This leads to the next consideration in how we create a culture of creativity and collaboration — how we choose to exemplify these principles.

Your principles should ground your day-to-day work — especially when facing high levels of stress and uncertainty.

An already rapidly changing, dynamic environment has suddenly reached a whole new level. Restless reinvention, therefore, has become even more important to de-risk innovation by delivering incrementally and minimizing time-to-value. In the midst of uncertainty, we need a model for action — we’re constantly observing, reflecting and making. We call this the Loop, which drives us to understand the present and envision the future. It enables us to build on our successes and learn from our failures along the way. When taken to heart, it keeps us moving forward despite the uncertainty the future may hold.

We’ve been maturing this behavior model for more than 7 years. Even with good momentum, it’s easy to fall back on old habits or solve new problems in old ways when confronted with a difficult situation. Given the current landscape, teams and organizations should consider the additional support that may be required to foster the desired behavior.

Teams may need extra guidance to consider innovative solutions or new ways of working rather than reverting to their comfort zone.The market insights and research organizations gathered 3 months ago may no longer be relevant as current circumstances impact user behavior now and in the future. Prototyping is even more important now in order to quickly test concepts before delivering into a world of unknowns. Leaders should focus on encouraging teams to get feedback early and often, even if the form of the prototype has to change.

Every day, we make decisions about how we approach our team’s way of working and about the actual work that is done. The important piece is to be intentional about balancing a bias towards action with thoughtfully considering what’s tried. Take meetings as an example: Do we start the meeting by connecting as human beings or do we launch into the agenda? Or look at how we are approaching challenges: Do we critically examine the problem we’re solving and dig for the real user needs, or do we forge ahead with assumptions and perhaps deliver the wrong thing?

We all have the power to choose through our decisions and actions what principles we want to exemplify. And that — more than any other tool or technique — is what will enable us to achieve outcomes and solve problems that matter for our businesses and the world.

How do you do this sustainably?

It’s not clear yet how long the current situation will last or what the full impact will be. Building the skills to be adaptive and flexible, to identify the right problems with innovative solutions, and to stay focused on our shared humanity is an investment we can make now that will have a large payoff in the future. Ultimately, it’s people that build culture. It’s important not to let short-term pressures cause us to lose sight of the fundamental things that drive real results for customers and employees.

We can still solve big problems even in uncertain circumstances. Fostering a human-centered mindset — and encouraging collaboration in different ways between teams and stakeholders — will be valuable now and in the future.

We firmly believe that Enterprise Design Thinking is a 21st century mindset that can help teams amplify their human-centric innovation potential and unleash their creativity — no matter if they are working together in the same room or remotely. As more and more teams and organizations follow a human-centered approach, the world will become a better place for all of us.

That’s why we have decided to temporarily open up free access to everything on our Enterprise Design Thinking site. We look forward to sharing our online courses and tools with you to help build cultures of human-centered innovation.

As a starting point, you might introduce your team to our Practitioner Course or reflect on your principles and way of working with a team retrospective (you can find the instructions in our Toolkit). Or, if you want tactical advice on how to turn a remote design thinking workshop into a catalyst for a new way to work, check out our recent blog.

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