If there was ever a story that exemplified, "Timing is everything," this is it.
At the end of 2019, I was working on a project with some colleagues based in New York when some team members expressed their frustration with being unable to effectively collaborate from across the country. After researching different tools, we found a visual collaboration program we liked called MURAL and initiated the process of getting company approval to use it. We were cleared to move forward at the beginning of February, where we immediately started using it for team-based ideation, conceptualizing and validating hypotheses, and recapturing meeting notes.
MURAL allowed us to collaborate more efficiently and effectively, but it wasn't viewed as existentially necessary.
Then came COVID-19.
Suddenly, everyone at the company found themselves working from home. Because of this, we went from an initial 20 users to 84 users in a matter of weeks – and we'll be adding even more soon.
We couldn't have predicted this future. But there's something I do know for certain: Having a culture that encourages openness, innovation and experimentation enabled us to take advantage of this tool at the right time. We were prepared to deal with some of the challenges that come with telecommuting by not having to scramble last minute to identify the right tool or deal with an extensive evaluation process. That work had already been done.
Implementing MURAL at Northwestern Mutual has been a great learning experience, with many lessons I think we can all benefit from.
I wasn't asked to look into this product. I was just curious – what if there was a better way to facilitate collaboration between our physically disconnected teams? I think it's really important to give yourself a chance to explore what you're curious about. It could be underwater basket weaving. It could be semi-truck driving. It doesn't matter. A curiosity to fix a problem led to this project, which then led to the solution being available when we needed it most. This is what having the freedom to innovate is all about.
This experience has taught me the power of coalition building and collaborating across domains. Although this started as a single idea – a way to connect two teams of 10 people – we now have nearly 100 employees collaborating with MURAL, including designers, engineers and product managers. It’s not just for one group of people, or one business area, or one practice. We are all better because of it. We're building off each other's ideas – and that has the power to lead to amazing outcomes.
While the goal of this project was to figure out how we could more effectively interact with our team in New York, I think MURAL (and the entire work-from-home dynamic, for that matter) is unifying the company to an even broader and deeper extent. As we all go remote, there is no “us” and “them,” because everybody is experiencing the same sense of disconnect. We are all starting from the same place, with an opportunity to figure out how to work better together, share ideas and do things for each other, rather than just for ourselves.
We put MURAL in place just weeks before the coronavirus outbreak hit home. Serendipitous? Absolutely. But I think this experience demonstrates that by encouraging ourselves to have an innovative mindset all the time, we can be better prepared to rise to the challenge, work together and support each other – no matter what comes our way.