A little over a year ago, in July 2019, we launched our innovation unit at dunnhumby, a customer data science company that is part of the retailer Tesco PLC. The goal: increasing the speed-to-value for our most promising innovations in the business. Most of these innovations will be product- and solution-oriented, and will extend the bounds of our current business by exploring new business models and technologies.
By providing a vehicle for these teams to experiment, we hope to validate them faster, and to back the ideas and teams that will provide the greatest impact on our business.
So, we started with a lofty goal and the freedom to completely rethink how we organize and operate teams. The only problem was that our most promising innovations were spread across the globe, with none in my time zone, or even my continent! In fact, the next closest team was in London, with much of the team in Asia. We were 15 people spread across three continents.
And yet, one year later, we are preparing to publicly launch our second new product; we have one of the most diverse technology teams in the business; and we consistently score as a top-performing group in the company from an engagement perspective.
My team is made up mostly of technologists (software developers, engineers, and data scientists), but it also includes product management and sales professionals. We use Microsoft Teams for meetings and communication and Office 365 for shared documents.
How did we make it work? What lessons did we learn?
First, we were remote before remote was forced upon us all. For us, talent and potential was more important than location. If part of our job is envisioning the future, it was easy to see, even before COVID, that the world was increasingly flat. Every morning, at 7AM Eastern, I have a standup with colleagues based in the US, UK, Germany, and India — all on video. The ease with which this takes place is remarkable, and would’ve been unthinkable just a few years ago.
Second, we communicate differently. This is where being an introvert is an advantage! Written communication is much more important. Video calls can be tiring and really shouldn’t be overused. They can’t replicate the interactions that happen in the hallways and lunch tables. However, these interactions are very important. Messaging in many ways helps to fill that void and is a powerful way of keeping the team engaged.
I have also discovered a new benefit to all remote meetings: the ability to chat alongside video presentations. Those who are less comfortable speaking during a call are often very comfortable engaging in chat form. Encourage this!
Lastly, you must adapt your management style. With teams spread out, some grouped together and some fully remote, it’s easy to let people slip through the cracks. In some ways, I find it easier if everyone is remote, versus only some of us working remote.
One way to protect against this is to have a higher cadence of one-on-one meetings with your team. Team chats don’t count. You must also make it a priority to read and respond to every written message your direct reports send you. There needs to be a level of confidence in this new way of communicating. No one likes sitting around wondering if your message or email has been read — don’t let this happen.
One year in, and I still have not met in-person with two-thirds of the team members who report to me. And yet, I am closer to some of them than the people I’ve worked with in an office setting over the years. Teams no longer fail because of location; they fail because of poor management. All the tools exist to make this a success, and they are only getting better.
I look forward to writing a similar note in a few years about building a team without a shared language.
Kyle Fugere is formerly the Global Head of Ventures and Labs at dunnhumby, a customer-data oriented business owned by Tesco PLC, the British retailer. He also sat on the Product & Technology Leadership Team, where he leverages investment capability to inform and expedite strategy in data science and media.
This piece is a part of the Fall 2020 special issue of IL’s magazine, which collects advice and insights from 25 contributors. Read the full “Innovation Matters More” magazine.