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Online innovation teams need to be especially mindful of cultural sensitivities among members and adapt accordingly. Evidence suggests that cultural diversity is a major asset for innovation teams. Under remote operating environments, cultural awareness and sensitivity is of heightened significance, and appropriate practices need to be deployed.

The Cultural Team Dimensions in Your COVID-19-Induced Work from Home

The corporate innovation climate is feeling the steel winds blow at our newly quarantined environments. The magnitude of the pressures facing businesses is slowly unfolding and crisis management strategies will dictate paths to survival. Under these conditions, innovation programs face challenges ranging from logistical hurdles to the need to redeploy resources to just-in-time demands of the organization. As we collectively pause and reflect, this may be the ideal time to recast and contemplate transformative innovations which will propel businesses forward when normality is re-established. One thing is for sure, however – the way we operate over the near term is set to change.

Bandwidth and the Home Office

Government and state level mandates have all but ensured that we need to adopt creative practice to keep our programs refreshed for what could end up being a considerable period. With groups of >10 all but forbidden in public environments, most corporate teams had migrated to remote/at home working some weeks ago. Given the plethora of available mediums to conduct tele-meetings through (Skype, Microsoft Teams, Zoom and the veritable masses of new entrants) the transition to remote meetings has been relatively effortless. With entire families hunkered down a large-scale test of household broadband capacity is underway and will no doubt result in additional market segmentation for ISP’s. More importantly for innovation teams abruptly transitioned to remote working is the dilemma of how to structure effectively in these challenging times. Given that this journey could last into the Fall, getting it right upfront is critical.

Cultural Diversity Fuels Innovation

There is ample evidence that cultural diversity has a disproportionately beneficial impact on innovation teams.1 This said, every innovation leader knows that for a team to flourish, creative tensions need to be both encouraged and managed appropriately. However, in this newfound world of cyber meetings, the idiosyncrasies stemming from our different cultural proclivities can often be lost, and the potential for negative consequences arises. Those same cultural differences that render a team super creative can also create speed-bumps if unmanaged, and have the potential to be amplified under isolated and remote working conditions.

Take for example the socialization and contextualization of agenda topics that often occurs face-to-face before meetings commence? Even in person these matters can be delicate, as unintended misunderstandings and misinterpretations may need to be addressed. Likewise, many leaders consider themselves adept at detecting and deploying emotional intelligence (EQ) among teams which helps promote a sense of inclusion, and conveys open, fair, and respectful dialog among the group. For culturally diverse teams, another critical leadership skill is cultural competence or CQ. However, whereas EQ can be adapted for remote meetings with some success, the components of CQ are far more subtle, ranging from direct versus indirect communication styles to conflict and uncertainty avoidance preferences which range widely based on nationality and culture of each individual. These drivers are far more nuanced and subtle, and could range from eye contact preference to speed of diction or response to being challenged. Running the e-meeting, the chair is now reliant on a short spectrum of information, which at best presents a facsimile of the participants, and at worst a stunted, echoed rendition. Having experienced and researched these situations, we are happy to offer some pointers.


Firstly, in any group of 5+ participants, we would advocate the use of a designated observer. They would be responsible for monitoring the behavior, output and engagement level of each e-meeting participant, playing close attention to meeting cadence. The observer should solicit input from participants who may not have contributed, and pay attention to the intonation of speech and body language when interactions between members occur (assuming video channel available).

Secondly, for video/tele conferences involving 8+ members, we advocate the use of an electronic system to prioritize questions. Such provisions are already available on many meeting systems, and most have group chat functions which the observer can monitor to provide flight control for questions and comments in the order received. Often times this strategy results in more efficient (and inclusive) meetings, as dominant and vocal members have a harder time monopolizing discussions when the system is democratized. Regardless of team size, the importance of giving each member an opportunity to provide a brief verbal ‘check in’ at the start of a meeting is especially relevant in these challenging times, where identities of individuals may feel compromised.

Use Time off for Training – the Inner You

If longer periods of quarantine result, we would recommend you use this period to fully capitalize on individual and group training using some of the various excellent platforms available online. One of these is the CQS training offered by the Cultural Intelligence Center, which provides a personal roadmap for each individual assessed based on cross-cultural competence.2 Another useful instrument is the Four Sight assessment tool for innovation team dynamics. In addition to generating personal profiles, the system offers specific tips for innovators on how best to interact with respondents who have different characteristics.3 Finally, for technical innovation teams, the Science of Team Science (SciTS) methodology can offer many useful tips for remotely operating teams including checklists to help identify potential ‘fault lines’ before problems arise.4

About the Authors

Based in East Hanover NJ, Graham Jones and Justin Wright are Director and Head respectively of the Innovation Program for the Technical Research and Development group at Novartis Pharmaceuticals, an organization with 110,000 members across 152 countries.


  1. Lorenzo, R., Voigt, N., Tsusaka, M., Krentz, M., and Abouzahr, K. (2018), “How Diverse Leadership Teams boost Innovation”, available at: (accessed 23 April, 2020).
  2. Cultural Intelligence: The Essential Intelligence for the 21st Century, available at: (accessed 23 April, 2020).
  3. Bratsberg, H.M. (2012), “Empathy Maps of the Four Sight Preferences”, available at: (accessed 23 April, 2020).
  4. Bennett, L.M., Gadlin, H., and Levine-Finley, S. (2010) Collaboration and Team Science: A Field Guide, available at: (accessed 23 April, 2020).