Virtual Teams #OEB19 preview: Leading Change through Open Conversational Digital Practice

Welcome to this month’s post (cross-posted here) in which we, that is Martin Hawksey (@mhawksey) and Maren Deepwell (@marendeepwell), openly share our approach to leading a virtual team. 

How is the way we work and communicate changing as we work in ever-more-distributed ways? In this special #OEB19 post we give you a preview of the work we will share at the conference and the conversation we hope our session will prompt. 

As a senior staff team working in educational technology we have worked for the past two years to develop a conversational digital professional practice that enables us to focus on mission-led innovation, develop an open approach to leadership and to lead our virtual team, both digitally and geographically distributed. 

In our session, we’ll be discussing why this kind of practice should happen in the open and why it is important; why and how you, as a learning professional/educator, can try to adopt this approach; and what the barriers you may encounter are. 

Maren Deepwell: Let’s start at the beginning: For nearly two years now we have led an open online conversation of blog posts and podcasts, talking about our organisation’s transition from an office based model to a virtual team. It was your idea initially to write about our organisation changing, and we both imagined that the lessons we’d share would be more practical, wouldn’t you agree? However, over the two years we have been writing these posts, our topics have focused much more on strategy and leadership than practicalities. Taking time to step back and reflect together has become an important element of the way we work and lead our team. One of the questions we get asked is how the conversation itself is created and that is something our #OEB19 session will explore. In summary, we use a shared Google doc to have a written conversation, usually over the space of a few days or a week. I often start to write the first paragraph (as I have done here) and the dialogue starts from there. Martin, thinking about how we write, how would you explain our “rules of engagement”? One characteristic that’s important to me is that there is no judgement, i.e. we can share what has worked well or what went badly wrong without prejudice. 

Martin Hawksey: When we started I did indeed think we’d focus on the nuts and bolts of managing virtual teams, which still does feature to a degree, our conversations have however often focused on some of the bigger questions, and at times very personal challenges of working remotely. In terms of rules of engagement our main one is to protect the privacy of our team and ALT Trustees. As part of our conversations we’ve been happy to write and talk about some of the personal challenges we have encountered, such as health and wellbeing in a remote context. Over the last 2 years it’s not just the both of us who have had to deal with the practicalities of being a distributed organisation, it’s also something all our whole team has had to adjust to as well. While we have respected the privacy of those around us our monthly posts are however an important opportunity to discuss all aspects of the organisation. In practical terms how this often works out is one of us will write something in the Google Doc and then this is picked up for further discussion either in one of our regular online catch-ups or in the video call we always have before the post is published. Personally I find this semi-structured approach incredibly powerful as it encourages both personal reflection and dialogue. The fact this is also multi-modal and combines synchronous and asynchronous communication means there is a constant exchange between us even during busy times. Are there any rules of engagement I’ve forgotten? Are there other benefits you find with our approach?

Maren: How you describe our approach really resonates with me and I look forward to discussing the ground rules we set for our conversation more fully in our session at the conference. I also agree with you that this conversational approach has many benefits, including prompting the personal reflection and dialogue you mention, improving our way of working through communication.

Leading a team through open practice however also puts us in a vulnerable position: one example of this is giving our audience a glimpse behind the scenes. Traditional approaches to leadership and authority are often grounded in a sense of infallibility, creating a perception in others that those in the lead have all the answers. When we started this project we were in the midst of a transformational change programme which affected all parts of our organisation and our job was to lead by example, to build confidence in all the new ways of doing things and to project faith that everything would work out. Doing that through being open is quite a departure from more traditional models and can take adjusting to, not just for those in our shoes, but our colleagues and everyone in the organisation. This is where things like seeking consent for example became so important. It’s interesting to consider how our own perception of this has changed. Sharing practice as a senior staff team can bring shared recognition but potentially also shared criticism. Another risk to what we do is that we blog about our work as it happens, rather than from the relative safety of hindsight. We often write about work in progress or recent events and things don’t always work out the way we anticipate. In fact I would go as far as saying that most of the time things take surprising turns and whilst operations may seem seamless on the surface, obviously that is not always the case. Sharing openly how things don’t work out, how situations have changed or what we would do differently next time takes a lot of confidence and discipline. I find it valuable to share what didn’t work, but at the same time not everyone is comfortable with that approach – some people read it as weakness, as too informal or as lack of leadership. You have talked before about how your attitude towards open practice has changed over the years. What are your thoughts on the risks and barriers? 

Martin: I would say my approach to open practice has matured and my view has changed from everything should be open to a more nuanced view of what is and isn’t shared openly. This change stems from a recognition in areas like open education the process of learning can be very exposing and the feelings of vulnerability can negatively impact the learner experience. Within our posts we have the safety net that everything we write or discuss isn’t published so our conversations can remain frank and honest. In terms of what is published, I feel I have a personal advantage of not being the CEO which means if I do say anything inappropriate you can flag in the edit. Whilst I feel like I have more freedom in our conversations one of the challenges is still how will what we say be perceived. Having blogged about my work for a number of years it’s interesting that I’m still surprised when someone else references them or mentions something I’ve written in conversation. This particular self edit is rarely at the forefront of my mind when we publish posts but I think it’s still sits there and perhaps over time it has slowly moved forward. Where it became particularly apparent that there was a wider audience to our conversation was our last recruitment round and it was clear that a number of our candidates had done some background reading. On the plus side our posts hopefully convey some of the culture and values of ALT, also giving a sense of what working within our particular virtual team is like, but as an interviewer slightly unnerving to have what we have said referenced. One question I often ask myself is if the model we’ve adopted would work in other scenarios or contexts? Do you think our organisational structure or sizes helps this conversational model work? Do you think that because we work in the education sector where there is a long history of contributing to the commons that we are more comfortable sharing our thoughts and experiences in this way?  

Maren: I suppose we borrow elements from both open education and open source ways of working (although most of what we do is leadership) and in previous posts we’ve talked about other blogs and podcasts that inspire us. Our approach could definitely be translated into different contexts and I’m excited that we’ll be sharing some examples and exercises for participants who want to have a go at the conference. For now though, I’ll try to articulate my answers to your questions: as I said, in my view conversational digital practice could work in any context and I don’t see why the organisation’s size or structure would make a difference – indeed whilst it does shape our conversation I don’t think what we do is limited to individuals in senior roles or even managerial roles. Regardless of role or context, much of the power of the approach lies in making regular time to reflect and engage in a critical dialogue. It could be harder or at least different to start this conversation with someone new. Like you mentioned above, we act as each other’s sense checkers and editors and we are comfortable with making or suggesting changes to what the other has written, without fear of implying criticism or causing concern. It takes time to establish that kind of collaboration. What is unusual (and indeed a result of the structure and size of our organisation) is that our roles make up the entire senior staff team and thus our open practice provides a particular kind of perspective, one which mirrors our responsibilities and strategic roles. We have the privilege to blog from a position that enables us to contribute ‘thought leadership’ (I dislike that term, but it best describes what I want to convey). One last thought I have is why it is important for our conversation to be in the open. There’s a lot to unpack here, and in some ways you could take this approach and adapt it as a closed project or an internal company blog or even publish it anonymously and much of it would work just as well. And yet, one reason why it’s important to me to be visible, for our voices to be identified, is that when I started this job I was desperately looking for examples I could relate to – and I didn’t find any. I hope that our posts might end up on the screen of other reluctant leaders, who may find that their desire to make a difference and do interesting things wins over their reluctance to have a ‘senior’ role and all that entails. To me, this conversation is about forging our own path leading a virtual team and leaving sign posts for others who are headed in a similar direction. 

Martin: This seems a good point to end this particular conversations but I wonder if in preparation for our OEB session that we extend the conversation to our readers. So dear reader are there any aspects of the model we use for open conversational practice you would like to learn more about? Do you have your own approaches to open leadership or working in or leading virtual teams you would like to share? If so we’d love to hear from you. Comments on my blog are open or you can reach us on Twitter @mhawksey and @marendeepwell or on this LinkedIn post.

Curious to read more? We’ll be publishing the slides from our #OEB19 session and you can also catch up on earlier posts on our blogs, podcasts or find out more about ALT, the organisation we work for.