Cross-departmental collaboration is a reflection of a healthy internal culture. When employees feel comfortable working together, communicate effectively, and understand each other’s roles and functions within the system, your customer feels the difference.
What gets in the way of cross-departmental collaboration?
Obstacle 1 – Tunnel Vision
When employees get too limited by the tunnel vision of their own job descriptions and team functions, frustration often ensues. This is often the root of communication breakdowns and interpersonal conflict. For example, an employee might make an unreasonable request from another team, assuming it was a simple request when it actually created a huge hassle.
Cross-train. Offer employees frequent opportunities to step into each other’s shoes, job-shadow each other, or train each other. The idea is not to make everyone essentially interchangeable, but to give employees a basic understanding of how each department functions, individually and as part of the bigger picture. This is especially important for regular processes that touch multiple departments.
Obstacle 2 – Ineffective Meetings
One poll found that 17 percent of employees would rather watch paint dry than attend a meeting. Ouch. Face-to-face time is essential to healthy collaboration – or at the very least, being on the same conference line or web conference. But meetings have a tendency to clog up calendars, disrupt the workday, go off-topic or off-schedule, or otherwise not accomplish their objectives.
Meet more mindfully. Before you schedule a meeting, think hard about how to make the most of that time. Meetings should have designated leaders, note-takers, and time-watchers. An agenda, prepared and provided in advance, can keep everyone on track. And there should be a plan in place to follow up on the meeting’s objectives and action steps before they are forgotten. Be mindful of scheduling, too – make sure employees have a chance between sessions to make meaningful progress.
Obstacle 3 – Social Silos
Consciously or unconsciously, each department can wind up so isolated from the others that it’s effectively in its own silo. Its members only interact among themselves and rarely cross over to other territories. The result is a series of micro-cultures that aren’t always compatible. Much like the tunnel vision that prevents employees from understanding each other’s jobs, social silos prevent employees from understanding each other, period.
Celebrate together. Create opportunities for employees to socialize with each other, during and after office hours. For example, you might consider a casual gathering on the final Friday of each month, and rotate the duty of “hosting” this gathering between departments or teams. You can use these opportunities to highlight positive progress and accomplishments from various teams – but unlike meetings, these gatherings don’t need a strict agenda.
Uniting around a common goal is one of the best ways to break down silo walls. So another way to get groups to mix up or interact could be to introduce a goal or project that isn’t directly related to work functions. Examples include: a charitable drive, a company 5K team, annual outings, regular “Happy Hours,” or some friendly competition like a costume contest around Halloween. All of these can break the ice and help employees see each other as people, not just co-workers.
Obstacle 4 – Top-Down Direction
Direction and leadership are not the same. Cross-departmental collaboration requires buy-in from all involved, including and especially the designated leaders of any given group. Otherwise, the entire effort feels inauthentic. Managers, after all, are just as susceptible to social siloes and tunnel vision as their staff.
The other side of this coin is whether or not employees feel they have a voice in how their departments are run, and in how departments interact. If they don’t feel they have an opportunity to raise an issue, ask a question, or be proactive, there’s little motivation to simply follow orders.
This one is twofold. First, department heads should be modeling cross-departmental collaboration by regularly and visibly engaging with each other – and with each other’s teams. If they notice that their department is becoming too isolated or is hesitant to collaborate with others, these leaders should be the first to start building bridges, and not just directing others to do so. Second, you need a mechanism in place to effectively collect employee feedback, in a way that makes employees feel safe from any negative consequences for speaking up. CSP highly recommends a Voice of the Employee program to gather this kind of data.
Your culture is the result of your actions and your priorities. Cross-departmental collaboration is not the kind of thing that can be enforced upon your staff. It must be nurtured at all levels of the organization, with deliberate intention, even when other priorities seem more immediately urgent.