Innovate Virtually

Innovate Virtually
January 6, 2021 admin
In Executives, Innovation, Leadership
Virtual work creates issues for maintaining innovation

Norm Wright, Dean of the Woodbury School of Business at Utah Valley University, chats with Ray Zinn on how to innovate virtually, which with work-from-home, may now be the new norm.


Ray Zinn: Hello, everyone. This is Ray Zinn. I’m the author of Tough Things First. Welcome to another Tough Things First podcast. I’m excited today to have a friend of mine to be my guest. He is Norm Wright. He’s the dean of the Woodbury School of Business at Utah Valley University. He’s not only a great teacher, he’s a good a leader in the school. What we’re going to talk about today is how to innovate virtually. With the COVID virus and other issues, doing things virtually has become kind of a way of life. So rather than just belabor the issue, Norm, let’s talk about, like in education, you’re probably teaching, I don’t know, virtually almost all classes, and it’s been a challenge for your school, as well as other schools, to really keep everybody excited, keep the tempo up and be able to really be creative and innovative in teaching virtually.

That’s the reason that I’ve asked Norm to come today because they are right in the middle of having to improve and innovate on teaching virtually. That’s the purpose of having this podcast is to say, “What can we do? How can we improve learning and innovating when we’re actually in a virtual environment?” I’m going to turn it over to you for a bit, Norm, and have you talk about it, and we’ll just go back and forth.

Norm Wright: That’s great. Thanks, Ray. As the longest serving CEO in Silicon Valley, you had a number of moments of reinventing your company and, who knows, maybe even yourself over that period of time. So, this idea of innovation and change is no stranger to you. Thanks for that lead in. Certainly, higher education has been going through a period of change recently, as we’ve dealt with online, we’ve dealt with changing student demand and the things that students want out of higher education and how they want it to be delivered. We’ve seen some great examples of that ranging from Arizona State University, to the Southern New Hampshire University, to our very own Western Governors University, and then a lot of the state and private institutions have been changing, as well. As we think about this particular case, though, the case of innovating in a virtual environment, there’s a lot of challenges there, and I think you alluded to some of them in your introductory statement, as we think about, number one, just to innovate, you have to have people involved. They’ve got to stick with it. They’ve got to be active.

Ray Zinn: Yeah. Got to have excitement. That’s the problem is, when you’re just sitting at your desk at home or wherever else you’re sequestered, you’re kind of just sitting there staring at the screen. It’s hard to get people excited. The other day, when I was talking with you about teaching, using Zoom or some other method of communicating, that the kids get up and leave and go get a snack or they walk off and go to the bathroom or whatever else that they do. They’re going to lose their train of thought. They’re going to lose where they are because you’re going to keep teaching, and they’re going to lose where they are. Now, in class, you tell them, “Hey, if you got to go to the bathroom or if you got to get a snack, do it before you come to class. Don’t just pick up and walk out of the class.”

We talked about the auditorium. If you’ve got 350 students in the auditorium, it’s really hard to communicate with that many people. I have a company that I … a SaaS company. It’s a software as a service company that I own part ownership in, and they have to communicate with India, with people in Korea and other countries that are different time zones and so forth. I asked, “Sir?” I said, “How are you doing that?” He said, “The best way is one-on-one.” He says, “It’s hard to innovate or to get some of the information across if you’re doing it with a a bunch of people.” Now, you told me that your average class size is, what, 20 or 25 people.

Norm Wright: About 32, yeah.

Ray Zinn: 32. So, how do you keep that excitement going with that many people?

Norm Wright: Well, I think that’s a couple of really important points you make here. How do you keep the excitement going when you’re talking about groups of 300 and 350? I think what we found in higher education is that you’re not going to get much innovation, and you may not even get much attention when you’re running groups of 350, unless the person on the stage is a real entertainer. Right?

Ray Zinn: Yeah.

Norm Wright: So, what we ended up doing in higher education was moving to much more of a hybrid model in some ways where maybe we would have the grand section of 350 students, but then we’d be breaking people out into groups of 25 or 30, and maybe these sessions would be run by a graduate assistant or something like that, but that need to get the size down and get people into more personal groups where people can participate.

Ray Zinn: Yeah. I’m surprised that  would say that they can’t do it with more than one person. They say, “Get two people.” They do a one-on-one. They just do two. They use Microsoft Team. I think this is their service, is their method of communicating. He says that it’s just different. They’ve tried to do it with a half a dozen, but it’s really, really difficult. I’ve been teaching. I taught seven classes since August, university classes, and they were an average of 20 to 30 students in each of the classes. It wasn’t easy. I mean, trying to keep track of what they’re doing and what they’re … I could tell that some of them were actually nodding off. They were actually sleeping, and you can’t innovate if you’re not paying attention.

Anyway, what do we do? How do we get excitement if you’re going to be doing more than a one-on-one? I mean, one-on-one is pretty easy. Matter of fact, I was surprised that Cyril said, “They just can’t be successful with more than one person.

Norm Wright: Ray, that really surprises me, too. About a month ago, two months ago, I can’t remember, time flies, I was in a meeting with a group of people, many of them from Europe. I believe there were a handful out of Asia and then a handful of us in North America. I don’t recall if there were others from other parts of world, possibly, but we spent a fair amount of time in a large group, and there were probably about 70 or 80 of us in this particular meeting. Then, we broke out into the smaller groups to where there were maybe 12 people in the room, if that, and some of the technology really allows you to do that. We had very healthy discussions that were around innovation in higher education when it comes to management education and so forth.

So, I think a few basics, number one, you need to have topics that are of interest to your employees. Of course, most employees are pretty interested in where they work and the competitive environment and things that you’re trying to do. So, hopefully, we can take a fair amount of that as assumed, but maybe not. Then, we have to give them a chance to voice because you and I both know that it’s a lot more fun to be talking sometimes than it is to be listening, though we need to do both, right?

Ray Zinn: Yep.

Norm Wright: If you’re sitting in a group of even 10, 12 people, you just don’t have much of a chance to contribute your ideas and your thoughts, and you don’t get that back and forth. So, I think breaking it into these standard groups of no more than five, six, seven people is a really great start.

Ray Zinn: You have to have a team leader. Somebody’s got to be the lead. Then, if you break out into separate rooms, and I know you can do that these newer communication software, you need a sub-leader then in each of the rooms that will carry it on. I know that the people have to know what the mission of the meeting is, what it is we’re attempting to accomplish, and then we have to be able to make sure they understand the objectives, other words, that there’s really solid reasons and why they’re there, and so we can keep and capture their attention and get their comments.

Norm Wright: How do you see that differing in a virtual environment, Ray, as compared to a face-to-face environment?

Ray Zinn: Because you can’t feel, and there’s no feeling. I know that that’s kind of a funny thing to say, that we need feeling. You and I are virtually doing this podcast. You’re where you are at your desk, and I’m sitting hundreds of miles away at my desk. So, how do we keep this topic going? How do we innovate in this podcast? It’s not easy. In fact, we’re doing it even tougher because we’re not even using the video. We’re just using the audio. So, that’s even a bigger challenge.

I’ve been doing basically virtual training and innovating for many, many years, I mean, at least 20, 25 years, because I had divisions that were all over the world. We must have 30 different offices. We would want to meet on a regular basis, either an employee all hands meeting, or we wanted to develop a new protocol or new idea for our product. So, we had to figure out how to do this back before we had Zoom or Team or any of these other services now. So, things are much improved over what we were [crosstalk 00:11:20] because I was just using a telephone back 20, 30 years ago. I wasn’t even using a computer.

Norm Wright: Yeah. Let me ask you something about that, Ray, because it strikes me. It builds on something else you said earlier. One of the things that we’re struggling with a little bit in higher education, I know our faculty are, and we’re trying to get used to this, is we’re doing some in-person work with live-streaming going on. So, maybe because of social distancing, a classroom that normally would hold 60 can now only hold 20. So, we have 20 in the classroom and we’re broadcasting, and then the question becomes, all right, what’s the interaction like with those who are not online, sorry, with those who are online and those who are in the physical classroom itself? I think some of our faculty found early on that you were getting quite a bit of participation from those who were face-to-face, and you really had to work hard to bring in those who were online. Did you ever experience that in your work when you had maybe somebody from India or from France or whatever kind of coming into your meeting virtually, and yet you had a group of core people who were there with each other physically?

Ray Zinn: Yes, absolutely. I mean, for example, doing a design review, we would have the designer in our main office in San Jose, California, and then the person who was giving the design review was in Shenzhen, China, and different time zone, as you can well imagine. So, some of them were coming to work kind of sleepy because of just the time difference. That caused some issues, just that alone, but then swapping screens and actually doing PowerPoint presentations so that the people in the home office could critique and give comments back on the design review was a challenge, but it’s the best we could do, but it did work. Obviously, if you’re all together, because you have to mute, unmute when you’re doing it virtually, but when you’re in a single room environment, you can do it. Somebody shoots out a question and so forth.

The other night, when they were doing the debate, they had the ability to mute a person as they were talking to keep them from talking over each other. When you’re innovating, you may want to talk over each other, because something pops into your mind, a thought comes into your mind, “Oh, well, what about this, or did you think about that?” That is the challenge, if you’re muting and mutinying. Otherwise, what’s happening is, is that, if you don’t mute, then all that background noise happens, and you hear people coughing or you hear them rummaging through their desk, and the speaker picks up everything, whereas in a regular closed environment, like in a room, you tend to tune that out. You tend to not hear it when you’re all together in a classroom or in a single room, but when you’re doing it virtually, you hear everything. You can hear them either coughing or sneezing or rattling their papers or whatever. That comes through very, very loud, and that’s very distracting.

Norm Wright: Yeah. Then, sometimes, people forget that they’re in a meeting and their video camera’s on, and you see some things going on that distract you-

Ray Zinn: Yeah. Exactly.

Norm Wright: …  not to do when we’re clearly in public with each other.

Ray Zinn: Exactly, exactly. I had a situation when we were doing a virtual meeting with one of our guys in Korea. He had just taken a shower and had come out and forgot that he had his camera on, and so we saw him in all of his glory as he was sitting in front of it. Then, he slammed his laptop closed. Of course, that shut it off, but if you forget about, hey, if the camera’s running, you’re going to see everything, and some of the stuff is distracting, whereas in a classroom or in a room, that’s usually pretty well set up, and you don’t have that surprise thing, that open mic, as they say. We have to be careful. I mean, to do things virtually, you have to prepare. When Guy and I set up these podcasts, we’re on about 15 minutes before we start so we can get everything all set up and make sure that the sound system is working correctly and that the background, if we’re using the video, is correct, the lighting is correct. All that is done preparatory to the podcast.

Norm Wright: Yeah. Let me jump in there, if I could, Ray. I think we’re probably closing in on the time we have for this podcast today, but as you talk about preparation, one of the things that we’re finding in higher education, especially for someone who’s presenting to a live audience, they’re live-streaming, but also in other cases, as well, where maybe not all that’s going on, is that it’s really helpful, especially if you have a larger group, to have somebody who’s helping you run the show. Basically, you know how in these meetings, you have all these comments? So, I’m sitting here and I’m the leader of the group I’m facilitating today, and I’m trying to see whose hands are going up and in what order or who’s ready to make a comment or that facial expression that says, “Hey, somebody’s not really agreeing with that, and that voice needs to be heard.” Then, there’s all these comments going on on the sideboard.

One of the things we find is it can be really helpful, whether it’s a student or a colleague or whatever, who’s paying attention to maybe the chat, and is saying, “Hey, there’s a question out here,” or, “Hey, so-and-so just said this. There’s a discussion going on on the sideboard.” I think that’s one of the things that our faculty are learning to do is to multitask in a way or to pull in help, because, as we all know, multitasking doesn’t always work, either.

Ray Zinn: Yeah. You’re 100% correct that having somebody that’s keeping track of who’s asking questions and what questions are … because, sometimes, they may be typing their question as opposed to expressing it verbally, and somebody’s got to be tracking that and keeping track of who and what sequence so that you can answer that question or be able to address the question in the proper order. I agree with you. I think doing things virtually, even though we’re in a situation where life is changing, as they say, the new normal, we have to be really cognizant of the issues associated with doing things virtually. That’s the purpose of this podcast. So, I really appreciate you taking your time, Dean Wright, to help us discuss and have this opportunity to present to our listeners what they need to do, what they need to be aware of when they are doing innovating and teaching virtually. Do you have any last comments, Norm, before we call this one good?

Norm Wright: Probably just one thing I’d add in, Ray, is that one of the things that we’re experiencing today in some of our classrooms is that there are certain people, whether because they’re shy or maybe English isn’t their first language or something like that, and they feel a little uncomfortable voicing, that we’re experiencing some people who didn’t participate a lot maybe in the face-to-face setting who are more comfortable typing in comments and so forth because they have a greater time to formulate those thoughts and so on. In that way, we’re getting some greater diversity of thoughts and so forth, which, as we know, helps contribute to the greater innovation. I think despite some of the limitations and so forth, we’re actually experiencing some of the gains of wider participation and so forth as we move into this virtual environment. I think it’s pretty exciting.

Ray Zinn: Oh, excellent thought. So, there’s the good news, and there’s the bad news. We’re trying to make lemonade out of lemons, and I think we’ll do that as we now move into a more virtual way of communicating, but you can’t beat this one-on-one visual in the same room situation, but we can learn how to work together, how to communicate virtually so that we get the most benefit in the environment that we’re currently faced with. Thanks, Norm. Really appreciate you joining us today and getting your wisdom because you have been doing all this virtual teaching and trying to innovate in your teaching process. So, thanks again. Everyone, appreciate you joining us today on this podcast. Don’t forget to go to our website, toughthingsfirst.com. Here, you’ll see all our podcasts that we currently have available and also our book, Tough Things First. You can get it at Amazon or your favorite bookstore, and my new book, Zen of Zinn, which has been out a couple years, but a good one for you to use. It’s a philosophical book that’ll help you come up with ideas of what you can do to improve yourself individually.

Norm Wright: Ray, would you mind if I just end with one quote from your book, the Zen of Zinn?

Ray Zinn: Sure. Go ahead, please.

Norm Wright: I realize it’s your show and you should probably end it, but I just couldn’t help it. It says, “One leadership challenge is to get people behind something they normally would be reluctant to do. In most cases, this is all about change. People hate change, and it takes special leadership skills to get people on board. So how does one get people to accept change? A great leader embraces change and promotes it enthusiastically. Change will only be accepted if leadership supports it wholeheartedly.” I just think that it’s so appropriate to our topic today –

Ray Zinn: Oh, yeah.

Norm Wright: … are running afraid of this change, and our job as leaders, I think, is to embrace it, just as you mentioned in your book.

Ray Zinn: Hey, that’s great. That’s great, Norm, for you bringing that one out. That’s right out of my book, and that’s perfect. We all hate change, but change is always with us, and we have to be able to deal with it and deal with it in the right way. Again, thank you for that. Again, thanks for all you who are listening in on this podcast. Do you have any questions? You have any ideas? Please don’t hesitate to send us a note expressing your feelings about it. We’re more than happy to hear what you think of our podcast. Again, thank you, and we’ll see you next time.

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