How is your team’s collaboration between departments? Are you “getting along” with the other departments? Do they ignore comments in your project management system? Do they close the elevator on you and not hold it open?
If your answer is a shrug and a “we do ok,” you’re probably not maximizing your team’s productivity.
What does collaboration between departments really mean?
Collaborating between departments is more than just “cooperating” with other teams. It involves cultivating a shared vision, mutual respect, and in-depth understanding of each other’s roles. Each department strives for a common goal of achieving excellent business outcomes and outstanding customer experience.
Consider this scenario:
- A large insurance company developed a new suite of products to meet unique customer needs. But as the products were rolled out, it became clear that the product development and marketing teams had not worked closely enough with the IT and customer service teams that were supposed to support these products. These teams knew about the general product development strategy, but they have not included in the detailed planning and rollout decisions, so they were left scrambling to catch up by the time the products were launched. As a result, customers experienced delays and errors in processing, the call centers were unprepared for questions, and the overall end-to-end cost of the new products ended up being much higher than planned. source
Or this example:
- A global manufacturing firm wanted to customize a product component for one of its major customers. Doing so required extensive design reconfiguration, with changes to electronics, cooling, power, weight, pricing, and product delivery. Although every function agreed to take on the changes that affected them, they all worked on them independently and with different time frames. What each function didn’t realize was that their changes triggered adjustments for other departments, and this led to a continual cycle of design changes. As a consequence, the product manager was unable to finalize an integrated design and still couldn’t give the customer a firm quote or delivery schedule 18 months later. source
These are very real situations that could happen in any company of any size in any industry.
As project managers, we have the ability to encourage collaboration between departments from the ground level. We can structure and dictate our team’s interactions with other departments purposefully and thoughtfully.
Best Ways to Improve Collaboration Between Departments
1. Provide Context
It can be difficult for team members to feel committed and motivated to collaborate with other departments if they don’t have the visibility or the understanding of how they impact the big picture.
Give your team a holistic view of the project and a common goal. Encourage information sharing framed around shared objectives.
This can be accomplished by having a cross-departmental kick-off meeting at the onset of a project, and invite the leadership team to join the conversation and set the vision. Of course, using project management software to coordinate and manage all aspects of the projects should be used.
This will also keep your team engaged. According to the Human Capital Institute, employee disengagement is estimated to cost the US economy as much as 350 billion dollars per year in lost productivity, accidents, theft, and turnover.
Another way to anchor your team’s work within a larger context is to build in feedback loops so employees can experience the impact of their contributions.
When teams are guided by a common vision and understand how their work fits into the larger context, they’re more empowered to take initiative.
2. Cultivate Empathy
Having a mutual understanding between departments can make collaboration smoother and more effective.
Encourage teams to “walk a day in the other’s shoes” and see the challenges of other departments from a different perspective.
Help employees understand the constraints and challenges faced by teams from different departments. Cultivate a sense of curiosity to help them learn about each other’s work and even come up with ideas of how one team can improve their process to help other teams become more effective.
It’s important to encourage a culture of mindfulness in which team members keep their personal emotions in check so they can relate to their co-workers in a positive and productive manner. source
3. Develop a Common Language
Jargons and department-specific language can alienate those in other teams. They also make communication much more challenging.
Confusions arise when team members don’t have a common understanding of terminologies used in interdepartmental communications. Not only will there be frustrating back-and-forth but also the risk of miscommunication that’d derail an entire project.
To improve cross-functional communications, develop a common language that would be shared during new members’ onboarding process.
Learn from past miscommunications to see where disconnect and misunderstanding happened. Anticipate a learning curve when you first introduce the common language and get team members’ buy-in by involving them in the development process.
In certain industries and for specific functions, the use of technical language could be hard to avoid. Encourage team members to learn the basic terms used by other departments, so they can effectively communicate on a day-to-day basis.
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4. Get Involved In Other Departments’ Processes
Imagine a creative team spending two months to come up with an elaborate design only to have the marketing folks tell them that it’s not reflecting the strategic direction of the brand; or the information architects taking weeks to refine a series of user experience only to find out from the tech folks that the backend does not support certain critical functions.
These scenarios are not only infuriating and demoralizing for the individual team members but can also impact the timeline and budget of the entire project.
Unnecessary frustrations can be avoided if teams are involved in the other departments’ processes while a project is underway to ensure that the solution proposed by one team is in alignment with the overall strategic vision and can be supported by the capability of other departments.
As project managers, we can foster such collaboration between departments by scheduling formal team check-ins, interdepartmental reviews as well as encouraging informal “touch base” among team members.
Don’t forget to clearly communicate the outcomes and action items from team meetings to the entire staff involved in a project so everybody is on the same page.
Consistent and constructive communications can help avoid finger pointing and blame game further down the road.
5. Facilitate Consistent Communications
The increasingly fast pace of the workplace environment means everyone involved in a project needs has the most up-to-date information at all times.
To encourage information sharing and to help team members stay on top of items they need to review and comment, you need the right software to facilitate such interaction.
— MITSloan Mgmt Review (@mitsmr) December 21, 2014
Most software applications keep all communications pertaining to a project in one place. When a new team member comes on board, he or she can easily get up to speed by reviewing past interactions among team members.
These applications allow you to automate notifications so the right team members can get the appropriate communications at the right time while keeping information available to everyone else at all times.
They also help eliminate the back-and-forth nature of email communications, which are hard to keep track and can get confusing very quickly. Some software, like Gantt Chart software, allows you to visualize the entire project over its lifespan so you can open up communication if you see a potential issue.
6. Set the Tone
Healthy relationships between department heads can have a significant influence on how well team members collaborate and it’s important to create a culture of collaboration within the leadership team.
As project managers, we can shape a collaborative culture by building relationships with project managers in other departments by setting the tone and lead by example.
Initiate periodic meetings with your counterparts to understand their progress and challenges, while helping each other brainstorm ideas and problem-solve.
This can foster a sense of collective responsibility for the organization’s success, and build a sense of trust between departments that would become invaluable for seamless collaboration.
7. Celebrate Wins
Celebrating wins and acknowledging each other’s roles in the success of a milestone or project helps cultivate trust and respect among team members from different departments.
Don’t limit your celebration to the completion of a big project. Set milestones and make it a habit to celebrate small wins.
Small wins help sustain momentum and motivation while breaking down barriers and silo walls. It feels good to win, and if “winning” requires interdepartmental collaboration, then such acknowledgment will provide positive reinforcement for future work together.
Celebrations don’t have to be elaborate. A company-sponsored happy hour or catered lunch – activities that give team members the opportunity to intermingle – are great options.
8. Encourage Feedback
As project managers, we need to build an environment in which team members feel comfortable speaking up to share their opinions.
In a fast pace work environment, we depend on each and everyone involved in a project to react to changes in plans and processes in a timely manner.
Encouraging feedback can help empower team members, thus contributing to streamlining and improving processes and collaboration between departments. source
It’s important to foster a culture of providing and accepting constructive feedback framed in a way that focuses on the circumstances and not directed personally at a team member.
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9. Foster Trust
Long-term, successful collaboration is built upon trust and transparency. Trust is the foundation of any high-performing team and transparency is a critical element in building trust among team members. source
There are many aspects of trust – trust of integrity, trust of ethics and trust of competency. The more you can encourage trust in these different areas, the more likely you’ll be able to build trusting relationships between teams and among individuals.
Consistency is key when building trust. Trust isn’t born out of one single action. Team members need to know that they can depend on each other every day without fail, knowing that while they’re doing their best their teammates are putting in the work as well.
10. Promote an environment of psychological safety
How teams collaborate can have an outsized impact on the results of their work, as Charles Duhigg’s now famous New York Times article points out.
In its quest to build the perfect team, Google directed its vast resources toward determining some of the defining characteristics that reliably separate high-performing teams from the rest.
The results of that effort found that performance often had much less to do with the members’ previous accomplishments, their relative levels of introversion or extroversion, seniority level, or alma mater than expected.
In many of the highest-performing teams, a strong degree of psychological safety, defined by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson as a ‘‘shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking,’’ existed.
It can be common for members of one department to assume a position of absolute authority on a specific topic, but unchecked, that authority can become a weakness. The outside perspective of a non-expert can often provide some priceless insights.
When there are no ‘silly’ questions to ask or ideas to share, collaborators are free to stretch their imaginations and find truly innovative solutions to challenging problems. With a respectful consideration of ideas among all colleagues in a discussion, there’s greater room for growth, understanding, and effective collaboration.
11. Provide an informal venue
If members of your organization only communicate and collaborate formally during meetings or special projects, there’s a very important human element missing from the equation.
This doesn’t mean you need to tear down all the interior walls in your office and put everyone in an open floor plan or buy a ping pong table. The key is to provide the cultural environment and the physical spaces people need in order to ‘run into’ one another, and encourage the spontaneous conversations that can often result form those impromptu meetings.
Although there are less opportunities to build physical spaces for informal collaboration on remote teams, it’s still possible to manufacture these spaces and experiences. Something as simple as keeping an informal channel in your team communication tool, or regular video chats can make a difference.
It can also be valuable to provide other informal opportunities to collaborate outside the office, whether that takes the form of company-sponsored volunteering events, a sports league, a trivia team, or any number of other activities that can bring a diverse crew together.
Seamless and effective collaboration between departments requires effort, and sometimes changes at the leadership and cultural level; however, the work involved in making those changes can produce transformative results.
This post has been updated and expanded by the Workzone team for 2021.
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