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Leveraging Cross-Functional/Cross-Cultural Collaborative Assets: Distance, Time Zone, and Culture
by Susan Schwartz


Business as usual can be very difficult in these early days of the 21st century. Organizations are being told they need to expand and participate in a global economy while staffing and travel budgets are cut back - not to mention post 9/11 fears. How do organizations achieve their goals by thinking and acting globally while people live locally?

Virtual collaboration is becoming a standard skill requirement. So, how can organizations and individuals overcome the challenges of cultural barriers, silo-based functions, and distance to become a cohesive, goal-achieving team? The simple answer is Trust and Creativity. The tough answer is how to craft and execute a plan that fuses a variety of perspectives based on unique tactical objectives to achieve strategic corporate goals.

The true key to successful virtual collaboration can be found in the advice of two great 20th century thinkers. Albert Einstein once said, "You can't solve problems with the same thinking that created them." Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, 1937 Nobel Laureate, was quoted, "Discovery consists of seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody has thought." Once again, simple answers for which the execution can be tough.

Encouraging Trust

The first step toward building a successful virtually collaborative environment is to create a level of trust among the team members. Many of the challenges that slow the trust-building phase are based on previous negative "group think" experiences. Although, there are powerful success stories; too often, cross-functional/cross-cultural teams served to promote an executive political agenda with very little tactical organizational support to champion program fulfillment. It is essential that virtual team leaders work with the entire collaborative group to set clear goals that are in direct alignment with corporate strategies.

The second step toward establishing trust among a dispersed collaborative team is to acknowledge each team member's strengths and contribution. Again many of the challenges that inhibit collaborative success are based on past experiences during which people have seen collaborative conference calls become a filibuster platform for a single individual with a single idea. Dissenting opinions were not encouraged. Since the participants saw no value outcome from their participation, victory was given to the unchallenged single strong voice. Two-way communication is vital for continued effective collaboration. And because, it can be difficult to determine whether "quiet folks" are supporting the speaker or surrendering to the situation, virtual team leaders must sharpen their intuitive skills and develop alternatives to traditional face-to-face non-verbal communication clues.

Encouraging Creativity

Acknowledging and encouraging participation of all team members is important when stimulating creativity among a geographically dispersed team. Distance, time zone, and cultural factors may appear to be difficult challenges when virtual team leaders are trying to encourage innovative "out-of-the-box" thinking. On the other hand, distance, time zones, and culture can be a tremendous asset since the variety of perspectives produced by the team's diversity and extended thought windows enrich collaborative thought processes.

The first step toward encouraging creativity within a collaborative environment is to take advantage of the extended thought window. Virtual teams/workgroups must expand brainstorming beyond a single room papered with flip charts and sticky notes. The Japanese business culture visualizes a collaborative workspace called the "Ba". This is not necessarily a physical space, but a place where people's thoughts and ideas converge in the shape of a continuous spiral. Although the basic concept of brainstorming remains the same, the execution shifts as the virtual work team works to rise beyond the challenges of time and space.

A distributed brainstorming session can be thought of a series of overlapping events that merge individual and group processes. The process is launched by the team leader sending a message to all designated participants explaining the goal of the project, the reason they were chosen, any static requirements, a series of thought-provoking questions, and a request for pre-meeting feedback of any additional parameters or thoughts for which advance thinking would enhance the group brainstorm session. Another suggestion is to invite individual contact for anyone who questions the purpose of the project or participation.

This preparation stage is very important in that it gives team members time to evaluate the request for collaboration and feedback. People whose native language is different from the facilitator have time to decipher any vernacular terms, work through any potential misunderstandings, and prepare an effective set of suggestions and recommendations. People who work in different functional silos may have some of the same difficulties with vernacular and priorities. Allowing people an average span of seven to ten days to prepare for the collaborative session can shave months off traditional cross-functional time frames because all participants arrive for the first session with an organized set of thoughts to share.

Successful Collaborative Team Essentials

Align virtual team goals with corporate strategies. Shift traditional work habits creating a series of overlapping brainstorming events.
Acknowledge individual contributions that create a strong team. Provide essential project information in advance of the collaborative session.
Encourage two-way communications. Facilitate interaction among all participants by requesting input and feedback.
Develop alternatives for non-verbal communication techniques. Leverage diversity of thought to explore new directions.

Facilitating a collaborative session is another shift of traditional work habits. The facilitator is the team leader and may have the best understanding of the goals for the end result; however, this person does not have a lock on the best solution to achieve the end result. It is essential that each participant is allowed to speak uninterrupted, time is allowed for questions, and group understanding of specific points and suggestions is validated. One suggestion to help maintain a reasonable schedule is to provide a proposed agenda with time allotments to the participants in the pre-conference package with the suggestion to share any documentation in advance of the session.

Sometimes a solution becomes evident during the course of the first session. More often, the decision may become more complex after the initial collaborative session. This is where time and space become assets. Everyone leaves the voice call or web conference with at least one action item. These actions can be concrete research activities or thought processes that will move the decision process to the next step. Everyone is involved in the analysis; thus, everyone is involved in the decision.

Time and space also enables virtual team leaders to better understand the reasons behind a particularly aggressive outburst or to discover why a member was particularly quiet during an interactive collaborative session. A one-on-one session may provide the leader with a particular insight that can shift the project toward a direction that had not ever been considered. Bringing the eminent scientist Albert Szent-Gyorgyi back to the corporate boardroom, "Very often, when you look for one thing, you find something else."

The true power of an organization is seen by the results of the fusion of its diversity. Success in today's rapidly changing world will not be found implementing tried and true practices anywhere except within a virtually collaborative workspace. Creating collaborative environments that facilitate trust and creativity will enable organizations to fully leverage a dispersed work force that acts globally and lives locally.


The Author


Susan Schwartz works with global companies to design and launch on-line collaborative communities and next generation learning solutions. She is the founder and principal consultant of The River Birch Group, a performance improvement consultancy that provides a broad range of services including role-based job task analyses, certification/assessment programs, mentoring/coaching, and curriculum design. Susan’s passion is helping companies learn how to drink from virtual water coolers. Susan can be contacted by writing her at, or visit her web site .

Many more articles in High Performance Teams in The CEO Refresher Archives
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Copyright 2002 by Susan Schwartz. All rights reserved.

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