Making collaboration work
“For the strength of the wolf is the pack and the strength of the pack is the wolf” – Rudyard Kipling
There is not a single industry or organization in the world – large or small – that would not benefit from collaboration between its teams. Several studies have repeatedly shown that better cross-department and cross-functional cooperation has a direct bearing on the topline and bottomline. It’s good for business. Even if your business is not-for-profit. It also makes for happier employees. And no one disagrees – everyone knows organizations, initiatives, projects succeed when teamwork is seamless. We all want to work together to achieve goals and be key contributors to the overall success of the organization. There are any number of articles, posts and even books on the subject. Yet companies wrestle with making collaboration work effectively.
There are several examples of collaboration in publishing – between Editorial and Publishing, Editorial/Publishing and Sales, Editorial and Production, Production and IT – that have led to benefits for both sets of teams. There are great insights to be gleaned from companies across other industries as well. Most of these companies share some common attributes and get the following things right.
1) Start at the top
Collaboration should be part of the business strategy and company policy. Leaders need to be clear about objectives and priorities for the company or division or unit and set boundaries. A matrixed IT organization found that they were losing deals because the revenue goals set for teams that were supposed to work together to win deals were at cross-purposes. When the business heads of the two divisions aligned themselves on the priorities and actively make it apparent to the teams, it became a cue for their teams to work together in spirit – show up for joint discussions, share information, avoid blame-games and truly collaborate. The organization saw a transformation in their win ratio, and it worked wonders for team morale as well.
Teams look to their leaders for not just direction, but also for behaviour – in other words, the onus is on the executive / top management/ business heads to set the tone for a culture of collaboration.
2) Provide mechanisms for it to work all the way through execution
This is easier said than done. It is critical to provide the right tools, channels of communication and infrastructure to foster knowledge-sharing and collaboration, especially for teams which are spread across locations and possibly, time zones. Some companies have defined liaison roles that prove very effective in bringing teams together for a common initiative, project or task.
However, beyond shared repositories and meetings for information exchanges – it is very important to consider what motivates the teams. One publisher spoke of editorial input being critical for new products, and while that certainly happened, “it was not a part of their job description”.
Business unit heads need to work together to formalize collaborative ways of working. A deeper understanding of the challenges different teams face in working effectively together is important. A change upstream has cascading effects downstream. For example, Publishing team requests a change in one journal when they have a portfolio of journals being produced. In face of this, Production faces the challenge of ensuring standardization of processes and templates to ensure better quality, faster turnaround and higher volumes of output. If both teams understand the objectives and the challenges of the other, a balance can be struck to arrive at a mutually-beneficial solution. This requires conversations and a formalization of process to ensure future occurrences can be effectively dealt with.
3) Formalize but also keep it informal
This could be through out-of-the-box means such as role plays and team-building sessions. People engage better in a relaxed, friendly atmosphere. This relationship-building then carries forward to work scenarios which requires collaboration. It is easier to bring around someone to your point of view when you had both been tied together, literally, for a three-legged race event.
Workspaces designed to ensure unplanned collaboration – such as shared workspaces or recreation areas – also help greatly. An Editor was in a branch office away from the main office, seated in an area heavily dominated by Sales teams. She had the opportunity to listen to their conversations, have informal hallway discussions and really understand the motivations of the Sales department. She was better able to work out a cohesive working relationship with Sales representatives that led to concrete positive results for both teams.
The importance of fostering open conversations and genuine relationships at work cannot be emphasized enough. Be goal-oriented by all means, but also be people-oriented. Achieved a major project milestone well before time? Checked all boxes? Yay! But, what is the pulse of the team? The key is for team leaders to focus on people as much as they do on tasks – they will be better able to tap the potential of their teams and achieve goals within the limited resources they possess.
4) Step into each other’s shoes
People who have moved from Sales to Editorial/Publishing or vice versa appreciate the nuances of working with the other team better. Empathy goes a long way in ensuring effective collaboration. Companies incorporate various mechanisms in their ways of working to foster this –
● Rotate tasks within a role and roles within a department or function – it helps break the monotony of the job, provides interesting options for people to upskill. This is enabled by Cross-training and is a fairly common means leveraged by organizations. It helps create greater capacity, have back-up when one area is understaffed and also provides greater motivation to employees since growth opportunities are provided to them.
● Rotate jobs or roles across departments – At Costco, the world’s largest warehouse club retailer, this is part of their policy. It is not uncommon for employees with 15-20 years of tenure to have worked across departments as varied as Warehousing, IT program management, Stores and Merchandising. Costco has a churn of ~6% which is low by Retail industry standards and over 90% of store managers have risen through the ranks.
● Hire key positions strategically – senior positions are often filled by people from different backgrounds since they are more effectively able to steer the future direction of the team.
● Remove traditional boundaries and silos – this works for some organizations. A medium-sized publisher has combined it’s editorial and production functions into one department – it is one unit with each of the team members being able to perform editorial and/or production tasks, as required.
However, rotation and cross-training needs to be planned meticulously with attention to detail. Not everyone is suitable for cross-skilling. And sometimes leveraging external trainers may prove more effective than one employee training others.
5)Know how much is too much
Too much collaboration is a drain on productivity. There are teams which spend hours in face-to-face meetings, calls, making reports – and face a burnout in the process. A consensus-driven manufacturing organization required approvals from line managers of multiple departments for key decisions in an IT project – this resulted in significant delays and cost overruns. It is important to have mutual respect for each other’s boundaries while keeping an eye on common strategic goals. For example, Editorial, Production, Sales etc. are each skilled in their respective areas and trying hard to achieve their goals.
What works best will differ across companies and may differ as the organization grows. But undoubtedly, making collaboration work at all times for continuous positive impact should be among the top priorities of organizations. It separates the good from the great.