How To Fix Your Cross-​Group Collaboration Disasters

BY Kathy Crosett
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Long ago, our ancestors developed two ways to survive when they encountered a threat. They could choose to stand their ground when an enemy attacked (fight) or they could run (flight.) A single person still makes those decisions when they’re alone. But, when they’re in a group, such as a department in an organization, team members have a third option — resistance. And that resistance can bring down your project.

Lisa B. Kwan, a collaboration consultant and researcher at Harvard University, explores corporate resistance in her recent article. In any organization, employees typically identify with their departments. These departments give them a sense of belonging, importance and mission. Back in the day, the folks in sales had a clear mandate, as did the product engineers. The organization became siloed as a result.

Need for Collaboration

In today’s fast-​paced economy, corporate leaders need team members to collaborate across departments. To stay ahead of the competition, the typical software company, for example, can’t rely on their sales reps to understand the complexity of a prospect’s situation. That’s why they often call upon engineers to lend a hand. And that’s where the trouble often starts.

The 'Blind Spot'

If company leaders don’t issue a clear mandate in these situations, they may find that progress stalls as their organization runs into the ‘collaboration blind spot.’ Kwan’s research revealed that leaders often discuss process and set goals when they establish a project that requires cross-​department collaboration. But, they fail to understand that individuals in these departments may feel threatened by the upcoming change, even if it's temporary. Team member response is to “guard the territory, minimize the threat.”

If you’ve asked your engineers to support your sales reps, the response may be less than stellar. Engineers, after all, pride themselves on designing awesome products. They don’t necessarily want to interact heavily with end users. Your sales reps may be furious that the engineers aren’t treating prospects as nicely as they should. Before long, your sales may slow down.

Achieving Collaborative Nirvana

To fix this problem, make sure your groups understand that leadership still values their core mission. These folks may need this reassurance regularly. In addition, allow each group to establish some ground rules. Give them autonomy. For example, don’t allow the sales reps to book meetings scattered throughout the day with engineers. Let the engineers block long periods of time so they can continue to work on new products. And, don’t allow the engineers to toss volumes of documentation at the sales reps and tell them to solve a client’s problem on their own. 

Take time at the start of each collaborative effort to understand how departments may perceive potential threats. Remember to reinforce team member value to the organization and build some autonomy into the ground rules in order to ensure success.