Getting the Best Work From Cross-Team Collaboration

Groups feel insecure when they are asked to work with other teams. It makes teams feel threatened when they are asked to tear down barriers, expose information, give up autonomy, share resources, or even abdicate responsibility. They inevitably think, what if the collaboration means that they’ve lost importance inside the company? What if they hand over valuable responsibilities and duties to never get them back?

For collaboration to succeed, leaders should first identify vulnerabilities to group security. Then leaders should take actions to mitigate them while discouraging defensive tendencies. After that, they should concentrate on the process and outcomes.

Energy Company Doesn’t Plan for Collaboration

Executives of an energy systems firm decided to provide an after-sales service plan for one of their products. The new strategy promised to bring in a significant new revenue stream while also being strategically vital to the organization. The key to success was figuring out how to effortlessly incorporate the service plan into the sales process. And, as the company’s management recognized, the best way to do this was to bring individuals from the sales and service divisions together and ask them to cooperate.

Leaders recognize the need for cross-group collaboration in today’s corporate world. It’s how businesses plan to innovate, stay relevant, and overcome seemingly intractable challenges. It’s how they intend to keep up with changing customer expectations, maintain market share, and remain ahead of the competition. In a nutshell, it’s how businesses prepare to prosper, compete, or just survive.

The company’s leaders were fully aware of this. As a result, they went on with their plan. They called a special meeting with Sales and Service to highlight the new offering’s financial and strategic value. They developed a detailed action plan for the coming weeks and months. They created incentives, made a senior leader accessible to both parties only for the project, and generously supported it with funds. They only formally launched the project once they’d checked all those boxes.

Issues arose very quickly. Sales and Service were just not working together. Instead, they began making major choices on their own and began excluding each other from discussions regarding shared initiatives. They delayed exchanging data — or dumped so much data on each other in so many different formats that it became nearly hard to make sense of it. They fell behind on project deadlines. The project came to a standstill.

The leaders of the energy company were perplexed. They’d gone to great lengths to set the project off on the right foot, and everyone looked to be on board. What happened?

The Blind Spot

Here’s the issue: Leaders prefer to focus on logistics and processes, incentives, and outcomes when mandating and organizing collaborative efforts. That is entirely reasonable. However, they overlook how the groups they’re asking to collaborate with could react to the request — especially when those groups are being asked to tear down walls, expose information, surrender autonomy, share resources, or even relinquish tasks that identify them as a unit. All too frequently, such requests make communities feel threatened because they appear to be opportunities for outsiders to intrude on their area. What if the partnership indicates that they’ve lost importance inside the company? What if they hand over critical resources and responsibilities and never get them back? What will become of their good name?

Nagged by concerns about their security, groups that have been asked to collaborate often retreat into themselves and reflexively assume a defensive posture. Their top priorities are: Guard the territory, minimize the threat.

This type of action can have far-reaching implications that go beyond the current partnership. A group intent on defending its turf and reducing threats may come out as obnoxious and disagreeable. It gets around that it “can’t be trusted” or is “two-faced” — assessments that might jeopardize future collaborative initiatives before they even start.

Existential Danger

Let’s take a closer look at the collaborative blind spot, this time in the context of an insurance company. The company’s management initiated a project that stopped in a similar way to the energy company example above, but the insurance company eventually understood what went wrong and managed to turn things around.

Because the insurance company was under increasing pressure from new and innovative rivals, it needed to start a new project. Senior management realized that the company needed to pay closer attention to clients and respond to new claims quickly. So they devised a strategy to bring their risk management team (which knew how to quantify and structure risk for all insurance products) and their business line groups together (which managed various product categories before and after risk management). The business line groups would have to learn how to assess and structure risk in new insurance situations on their own so that they could respond swiftly to customers, and the risk management team would have to share its highly coveted knowledge with the business line groups.

The proposal was logical, but it made Risk Management uneasy. After all, the group’s job was to manage risk. That was its reason to exist. Did this suggest the organization no longer viewed Risk Management as a separate department if others were now being required to perform the same thing? Was the group being asked to train its successor by being urged to collaborate?

These are valid concerns. Skilled workers, particularly in disrupted sectors, have cause to be concerned that their talents are becoming outdated and that changes in the status quo imply that they and their departments have become less important to the organization. As a result, it’s easy for organizations to believe that demands for collaboration pose a threat to their job security — even if this isn’t the case.

A Feeling of Safety

Groups build and grow their feeling of safety along with three primary elements: identity, legitimacy, and control. Any leader who wants to promote effective cross-team collaboration must first understand why these aspects are so important to groups and how they contribute to a sense of security.

Group identity is how a group perceives itself. You must know who you are and what you stand for to execute your work as a group. Identity gives groups a sense of security by giving them a center of gravity and significance in the enterprise. When others consider a group’s presence as suitable and acceptable inside the firm, and the group is perceived to be valuable, the group gains legitimacy. It’s also important to have control over what you do as a group. It’s not enough to know who you are as a group and to believe that your presence is accepted and validated by the organization. You must also be able to operate independently, determine the terms on which you work, and make real change.

Although identity, legitimacy, and control are independent forms of group security, they all have one thing in common: they virtually always require that teams “own” territory, such as areas of responsibility, resources, or even reputation. Owning territory allows teams to distinguish and identify themselves; it serves as a proxy for a group’s acceptability and worth. It guarantees that groups have the autonomy and decision-making powers they require to carry out their mission.

This is easy to see if you remember to look for it. But we frequently forget. That is exactly what occurred at the insurance company. Risk Management felt frightened when confronted with the needs of the collaboration. As a result, it dug in. Risk Management, according to business line groups, was either tardy or non-responsive to requests for training. Risk Management, on the other hand, expressed dissatisfaction with the business line groups for “making too many mistakes” and “creating extra work for us.” As a result, the insurance company needed more time to handle new cases rather than less.

Of course, the groups at the insurance company share part of the blame for the collaboration failure. But the company’s executives are ultimately to blame. Instead of slowing down to evaluate how the planned project would jeopardize the security of the groups involved, they raced into planning and implementation, resulting in counter collaboration rather than collaboration.

The lesson here is simple: you must launch a threat assessment before creating a cross-team collaboration. What aspects of the partnership could be disturbing to the teams involved? What is the most effective technique to dispel the feeling of danger?

Before a cross-group collaboration, you must first identify and mitigate the opposition that the effort will create.

Reinforce Identity

There are two main ways to discover risks to a group’s identity. First, figure out how each group sees themselves. What are the group’s accomplishments? What sets it apart from the competition? How would members represent themselves to the company’s major stakeholders? To your clients? Consider how the important parts of the collaboration can jeopardize the group’s identity considering those perceptions. What are the primary responsibilities? What changes will be made to existing processes, and how will resources be used differently? Will the group’s identity be diluted or harmed because of these new ways of working?

Threat Warnings

Look for territorial responses during cross-group collaborations, which indicate that groups are feeling threatened by what you’ve asked them to perform. These could include the following:

  • Overt territorial statements, such as asserting that one’s own group is in charge or that the opinion of the opposing group is irrelevant
  • Open attacks on others, such as publicly criticizing the operations or processes of another group
  • Covert blocking behavior, such as dumping so much material on another group in such a difficult way that the other group cannot understand or do anything with it.
  • Power plays, such as organizing a high-profile “summit” to address a problem but excluding the other group from the invitation
  • Overt manipulations, such as framing or discreetly altering perceptions of one’s group’s competence as being either very different (to increase barriers) or very similar (to decrease boundaries, making “attacks” on the other group easier)

Leaders can effectively counter this issue by giving groups more ownership over other aspects of their identity (even if those aspects aren’t relevant to the collaboration), and then making the group’s association with other areas obvious. Leaders can also use group activities, training, and even physical décor, to build or validate their groups’ sense of identity. Little things have a big impact. You can also reduce identity threats by openly recognizing the important responsibilities that a group has always played in areas that are vital to its identity.

Reaffirm legitimacy.

A two-step procedure can also be beneficial in this case. Consider the larger picture first. Why was this group formed, and what do you think the group’s most valuable contributions are? Consider the key tasks — and credit — to be shared during the cooperation with the answers to those questions in mind. Do any of them align with the group’s reason for being or its most valued contributions?

If this is the case, you have a threat to legitimacy, which you must address. One significant approach to do this is to openly recognize the group’s significance and distinct value within the firm. You’ll want to reinforce this message, especially in the early months of the partnership, and back it up with continual support and recognition for the teams engaged.

Is it possible that the group was tasked with training its replacement?

When a collaboration was proposed at a construction company, identity and legitimacy risks became a concern. Faced with a drop in sales throughout the industry, the company’s executives decided to try to increase demand for alternate applications of its services and products. To realize this strategy, they developed an unparalleled partnership between their sales staff (which could analyze and influence demand) and their innovative engineering team (which could imagine new uses for existing products).

Sales would identify clients who could be interested in alternate applications, and a member of Innovation Engineering would accompany Sales on client visits to investigate and present potential possibilities. Later, a member of the Innovation Engineering team would contact the customers directly, and if they expressed continued interest, someone from Sales would be invited back into the dialogue to complete the purchase.

In theory, it was a good plan, but it didn’t work out so well in practice. Sales discovered few prospects for Innovation Engineering to meet with, and when it did, Innovation Engineering said that Sales provided little opportunity to really make a proposal. Not that Innovation Engineering wanted to do that in the first place; team members believed that developing ideas, rather than selling them, was the most valuable contribution they could make to the organization. They held that perspective of themselves in such high regard that they utilized it to determine not just their team’s identity, but also the team’s worth inside the organization. Sales, on the other hand, regarded itself as the only connection between the company and its most demanding customers. All of that was brought into doubt by the new procedure. Both teams, predictably, objected to the collaboration.

Fortunately, the leaders of the construction company understood that they were dealing with risks to the group’s identity and credibility, and they rapidly moved to counter those threats. They had a joint meeting in which they publicly acknowledged Sales’ vital role in creating and guiding client relationships, and they stated that they anticipated the group to continue in this position during the cooperation. At the same time, they recognized the importance of Innovation Engineering in developing practical ideas for the business, and they made it plain that the engineers’ purpose during sales trips was ultimately not to make sales, but to conduct on-the-ground research for industry-leading innovation. Hearing all of this increased each group’s sense of safety.

The encounter was a watershed moment in the collaboration. When Innovation Engineering was finally invited to client meetings, Sales began to devote more time to evaluating its client rosters, and Innovation Engineering began to engage more completely. This was enough to get things started. Executives realized that “lip service is cheap,” so they made a point of continuing to maintain and nurture the collaboration, reiterating and reinforcing the ownership both groups had over the endeavor, as well as their identities and legitimacy.

Reassert control.

Identify the primary areas in which the group has autonomy and decision rights to determine whether a joint project affects the group’s feeling of control. For example, what are the general topics, procedures, equipment, and choices that this group oversees? These are your “landmark” categories. Now consider the planned collaboration. What topics, procedures, equipment, and choices will require shared, unclear, or ambiguous control, and how do they relate to the landmark categories you’ve just identified?

You’re probably dealing with a control threat if you see a partial or complete overlap. Finding alternative areas (even if unrelated to the goal project) where you can strengthen the group’s authority and autonomy is one strategy to handle this. Executives at the construction company saw that Innovation Engineering was losing control because of the arbitrary amount of time and resources that others decided its team members had to devote to sales-like activities. To address this issue, the executives gave the team more authority on a separate project that was entirely focused on innovation. The Engineering team was still required to participate in customer visits and assist in the creation of alternative products, but now that it had greater influence over this innovation initiative, it felt less intimidated by the collaboration and participated. Sales and Innovation Engineering gained confidence in the program and its implications for their territories and sense of security.

Check Your Blind Spot

As we’ve seen, leaders often overlook how requests for collaboration might harm groups’ feeling of security and provoke defensive responses. The relationship between teams can come to a standstill when both groups feel their turf is being encroached upon, as shown in the energy company example above.

The insurance company made the same error at first. But the effort eventually succeeded because a top executive noticed that the risk management group was feeling threatened. Risk Management would have to cede some of its primary areas to business line units as part of the collaboration. There was no way to avoid it. He made that clear, but he also talked about the challenges to Risk Management’s sense of security. He stressed that Risk Management will now be explicitly accountable for teaching and administering risk management activities across groups in both public and private contexts. In doing so, he reinforced its identity, legitimacy, and authority by redefining its boundaries. Even if it wasn’t handling all the job, the group was still valued for risk management.

It was a wise decision. Risk Management employees appeared to quit opposing and embrace teamwork almost instantly. They began responding more swiftly to requests, offering more extensive information, and even suggesting other ways to help the program since they no longer felt threatened. “They now seemed like colleagues, even advisers, rather than a brick wall,” as one member of one of the business line groups described it.

So, if your cross-group projects stop, don’t lose hope. There are solutions. Collaborations may be effectively resurrected by first recognizing dangers to group security and then taking actions to mitigate those threats and discourage defensive responses.

It’s much better to check your blind area ahead of time. The trick is to remember to do so. To that aim, here’s an illustration that could be useful. You can’t just stare straight ahead, put your foot on the pedal, and swerve if you want to change lanes safely on the highway. You must first check in your rearview mirror and assess the dangers that surround you. Then and only then should you act.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *