A Business Technology Place

Cross Departmental Teamwork 101

Information Technology departments are often criticized for their lack of collaboration with other business departments. Is IT needed since technology equipment and software is a commodity? Everyone has access to buy equipment and software in the open market to help run their business electronically. But what you can’t buy in the open market is teamwork and collaboration. That comes from within the organization with people not with bits and bytes.

Mike Stiles, from Oracle, blogged about 5 Secrets to Marketing and IT Collaboration. The list includes “understanding the perspective of your peers” which is not something you can buy. Robert Thomas, of The Harvard Business review, calls collaboration an intangible asset.

For some workers collaboration comes natural. For others, it’s like pulling teeth! In my career I’ve learned three simple things about working together with others. I consider it a list of basics although it contains concepts that were not always apparent to me.

1. It’s not what you say, but how you say it that makes all the difference.

My goal is to talk in terms of ‘we’ and ‘us’ instead of “you’ and “I’ when working with others. Create a team feel from the onset of a conversation. Stay consistent.

About 16 years ago, during my first week of a new job, I sent an email to my new team members with some requests for information. I was working on a task from my new manager so it seemed harmless. But the email was not received well with others because it was filled with statements like “I need”, “I’ve been asked”, and “I will”.  That’s not team friendly! Thankfully, a team member worked with me offline to explain how the message was received. Lesson learned.

2. When reporting a problem, communicate with the person directly before sending an email and copying multiple people.

An easy way to put co-workers on the defensive and irritate them is by copying their manager and several other people on a communication to complain about something that needs attention. I’ve seen this approach repeated hundreds of times in my career. I’ve been an observer, a reader, and an initiator.

About a year ago I errored by replying-all to an email that did this very thing with me. Someone was complaining about services not given to them from the team and copied several executives. By me replying to all and acting a little defensive I only exacerbated the problem.  The good news is that I knew I had made a mistake as soon as I sent it. I called the recipient directly and apologized. It made a huge difference in reaching a solution.

In the book of Matthew (18:15) we find it written this way “”If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.”

3.  Do you want to be part of the problem or part of the solution?

It’s easy to complain about something you see. But it takes a different level of commitment to offer solution ideas and to help solve the problem. A collaborative approach builds unity and teamwork, so offer to participate. Mike Stiles from Oracle recommends in his blog post, “Be the role model”. Be the one who reaches out to start communication. Be the one who offers to be part of the solution.

Here’s a good example: “We noticed that X is happening, can you help us to find out why” rather than “X is happening and your process to fix problems needs to change.”

Organizing a Hack-a-day at work

I’ve always been fascinated with the hack-a-day or hackathon events that promote groups of people getting together for a short burst of brainstorming, prototyping, and coding to create something useful. I decided to organize such an event at my place of employment to see if I could provide value to the business with it.

The Objectives

  • Result of the work is something the business could use to grow revenue or cut costs. Some of results of the competition should turn into project and tasks.
  • Cross departmental collaboration.
  • Team building.
  • Spirited fun through competition and learning.

The Idea
Create teams composed of members of the IT group that work with a business partner from a chosen area within the business (Finance, Operations, Marketing, etc.). The IT members interview and watch the business partner work for two hours so they can see the business processes and tools that each member uses to do their job. After two hours the IT teams huddle to brainstorm, prototype, and organize ideas to help improve the work flow from what they observed. Then at the end of the day all the teams and business leaders assemble for the team presentations. Three neutral judges that are SMEs are drafted to judge and prizes are awarded to the winners.

I targeted a particular work area within the business to partner with the IT group during the event. I setup a meeting to explain the idea and concept and to see if they could support the event by providing a business liaison to work with each team. To keep the playing field even, I wanted each business liaison from an area in which they performed the same business function (i.e. accounting, procurement, estimating, etc.)

I also invited HR to the pre-planning meeting to get their buy-in. I was taking team members out of their normal jobs for a day!

After I obtained buy-in from a business group, I sold the idea to the IT team. Well, I should say I presented the idea to the IT team. They loved it of course. It’s a free day to compete with each other and do something a little different. Techies love to compete with each other.

We set a date and I emailed invitations to reserve the calendar spot.

I split the teams by having a member from each area of IT so that I could create equal diversity in skill set. For example, a programmer, a data analyst, a project manager, and in infrastructure member for each team. I looked at tenures and genders to create and equal distribution in company knowledge and diversity as well.
I did not announce the teams until two days before the event. This was to keep it a surprise and build some excitement.

On the day of the event, I had breakfast delivered for the participants. Everyone gathered in the break room to be paired with their business partner/liason. The teams left together and for the next two hours they asked questions, watched, and learned about a business process they may not have been exposed to in the past.

After two hours the teams were assigned a conference room to huddle and hack. This lasted for five hours (we brought in Pizza for everyone). Then for the last two hours of the day, the team assembled to present their ideas.

The presentations
There was a definite energy in the room as the teams presented. I had previously given them rules about how they would be judged (value to the business through revenue generation or cost reduction). Some teams elected a spokesperson while others had multiple team members present.

The presentations included everything from observations of challenges and problems, to specific suggestions for improvements. Some of the presentations included screen mockups for software updates. Other presentations included quick hit suggestions to help with automated workflows.After the judges selected the top two teams I awarded gift cards to winning participants.

Mission accomplished. Now the real work.
The feedback I received from employees was 100% positive. There are a few tweaks we’ll make before we do it again. The day was full of cross departmental collaboration that would otherwise not happen. I know the participants learned more about the business and felt like they could present ideas to help the business operate better.

It’s important to turn some the suggestions from the event into real work. Team members need to see that the event was useful to the business to drive their participation in future events like this. It has to be credible.