“Smart Leadership” by Tamara Carleton, Ph.D.

“The key is to help people understand how they do what they do and why they do it. Once they know that, even if the circumstances change, they will still understand how to adapt and what to do next.” In conversation with Tamara Carleton, Ph.D., about demographic forces, virtual collaboration, and smart leadership.


Can you tell me about how you organize your work? What is your daily life like? What differentiates your work life in the Silicon Valley from other work styles?

I’ll give you two answers. First, Silicon Valley generally blends work, life, and play, particularly for the community of entrepreneurs and the broader innovation ecosystem. Work really flows around and in between settings. So boundaries are very open. The second answer, in terms of my personal life, I am both lucky and intentional in trying to blend work, life, and play. When I travel, for example, I often bring my children with me or plan time for a vacation. I also work with many experts or specialists, and a range of vendors in different areas, who prefer to work independently or freelance. I assemble the talent that I need, set that up, ensure the delivery, and oversee the quality. I may or may not tap the same people for the next initiative.

There are not really any employees, so how do you lead these different groups of people that you work with?

It depends on where they are based, on the type of innovation program, and on the expected outcomes. I might, for example, tap one or two of these folks in the area where we are holding the program, getting their help in dealing with logistics or drawing on their special expertise. Other times, when I am traveling, I make sure to catch up with these different people that I work with. We work collaboratively, around the world, and around my schedule. It’s fluid and flexible. For some projects, I know the people personally. But sometimes I don’t actually meet them face-to-face.

Do you sense any real difference between the collaborative work that you do with people that you have met and seen in person and those you have not?

That is a good question. Human nature relies on bonding. Research shows that the best projects start when people meet one another and get to know each other in informal ways, such as grabbing a beer together in the evenings. That said, you can still work and talk effectively, and collaborate with people that you don’t see in person. But you have to be more sensitive to the dynamics on a Skype chat or when you are exchanging emails. There you can’t rely on the same non-verbal cues and human emotions.

In the future do you think we’ll need classic workplaces or co-working spaces where people can meet? Or will people simply bring their offices into their own homes?

I think there will be more options available. But not everyone will have access to all of those options. Co-working spaces have become trendy now. And I think they will continue to be popular for the next few years, especially for Millennials. But not so much for larger, established companies and heavily-regulated industries, like the financial sector. They really need to be managed in a more structured space. So it depends on the type of job. I think that going forward it will simply multiply.

What will change in the future of work?

I think there will be some big shifts ahead that will shape some of the mega trends and other changes related to technology, like demographics, for example. We will have different generations or a wide range of ages – the widest range ever – working together. In last few decades, we have also had more people from different ethnicities, religions, and social backgrounds working together. In the future people all over the world will work together for companies, which could be incredibly challenging for employees. But because we are in the modern age, we have digital tools and other techniques for bringing these diverse teams together.

How can leadership deal with these changes?

I think this is an ongoing question of smart leadership. As a smart leader you can stay adaptive. For example, you can recognize the importance of feedback and of creating a culture of shared ownership that really allows people to feel that their work has meaning. The digitization of work means that it’s important to create an internal culture of learning and of helping people learn how to learn. Smart leaders have to put more emphasis on understanding both the types of tools they might need and on the ways that groups might need to collaborate and co-create. This has been part of what I have been trying to do, moving toward an emphasis on the workflow, on helping people understand how they do what they do, and why they do it. Once they know that, even if the circumstances change, they will still understand how to adapt and what to do next.

These days, even if you are the leader, that does not mean that you must have the answers. Instead you reflect with your team and try to find the answers collaboratively?

Yes, very much so. It is healthy to engage others around you, particularly as the problems have become more complex. One person doesn’t have to have all of the answers or all of the expertise. To help you understand, you need to engage a broader group, who can bring along with them their complimentary skills and perspectives. The smart leader doesn’t need to have all of the answers or to pretend that they do. But instead they could represent or be the spokesperson for the group.

In five or ten years, the tools will be totally different. If you think about communication, within teams and between individuals, and about the exchange of information in general, what types of tools do you think we will need to support these different types of communication?

I think leaders will have a mix of tools. Hopefully, some will include ours as well. I think the better tools will, on the one hand, be designed to be collaborative and will bring a group together in terms of sharing input, conducting analysis, or working through the solution. On the other hand, they will be visual, opening our minds to other possibilities that will help fuse the creative and analytical sides. Future tools will also be more integrative, taking the output of one tool and feeding it as input for another. We will not always use the same tool every time. That is why it is so important to understand why you do what you do. There may be times when we want to do a modified version or try out another technique that may be more flexible or more based on what we need. I expect that we will see a lot more prototyping, which is itself a type of tool. By prototyping I do not mean the last stages, like building, manufacturing, fit and finish. I mean more the early stages with mock-ups. These stages really let teams explore and test their assumptions, which helps them understand what they are doing. That process creates feedback in fast loops. That’s why the Lean Startup and agile methodologies have become so popular; both of them include prototyping and fast feedback as part of their models.

Book recommendations

Playbook for Strategic Foresight and Innovation, 2011, Tamara Carleton, William Cockayne, and Antti Tahvanainen.

Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World, November 2015, General Stanley McChrystal, David Silverman, Tantum Collins, Chris Fussell

About Tamara Carlton, Ph.D.

Tamara Carleton, Ph.D., is the CEO and founder of Innovation Leadership Board, based in Silicon Valley. She works with companies all over the world, helping leaders and their teams develop long-range strategies and tools for innovation. Dr. Carleton teaches at Stanford University and is a Visiting Professor of Design at the Osaka Institute of Technology in Japan.

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