Collaborating Without Trespassing

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From the time I was capable of pushing a lawn mower, I was mowing my parent’s lawn. At first, I would mow a strip of grass and my dad would critique how straight I stayed with the previous row until I eventually got enough experience and strength to mow the entire lawn. When we moved to Maryland, we had a front yard with a fair amount of grass that we shared with our neighbor in the front yard. At first, we mowed our own lawn from the property marker near the sidewalk to the fence which separated our front and backyard. My parent’s yard was sometimes longer, and more healthy than our neighbor’s property. In other instances throughout the year, our yard was also shorter and less healthy than our neighbor’s. With inconsistent approaches for caring for our lawns, we had very different results depending on the amount of care we each put into it. One day, our neighbor asked us if we would be willing to take turns cutting and caring for each other’s lawns each week. This allowed us on some weeks to only cut the grass in the backyard, as well as have a nice, consistent look across both of our front yards. Our neighbor edged his lawn, so he edged ours, he knew more about fertilizing, he aerated, and other lawn care best practices we previously hadn’t done or been knowledgeable of. Our lawns never looked so nice, and the consistent look and feel across both yards really helped make the neighborhood shine.

When I entered the business world, I quickly realized that it wasn’t just property owners who tended to primarily look out for their own areas. In business each “silo”, or business unit tended to think about their needs first, and rarely did they want to willingly collaborate with others. The result of silo’d business processes led to times where I learned we were working on something another team had already been working on, was about to work on, or even a few times when another team had already done what we were doing. I learned about “turf wars” where people didn’t allow others to encroach onto their areas of responsibility within the business. Silo’d businesses aren’t fun to work for because they are highly competitive instead of collaborative, and it seems everyone is in it for themselves. I don’t want to spend too much time writing about the problem, or the impact of silo’d thinking because most of us have lived or worked in a silo’d and non-collaborative environment.  Think about your religious institution, business, education, or even personal lives.  If you have ever tried to do something big, you’ve likely stepped on someone’s toes.  I want to spend the rest of the time writing about how to change or create a more collaborative work environment if you are at a company with a silo’d approach to business.

Recommendation #1: Set Boundaries
Make sure you have property markers in your business. You wouldn’t buy a home or property unless you know what you own versus what your neighbor owns. If people don’t know what areas they are responsible for, they will encroach all over everyone’s areas of responsibility, which will cause massive amounts of conflict.

Recommendation #2: Communicate Boundaries
Once you have property markers, share them in a very public and accessible location, so team members can never say “I didn’t know they were responsible for that”.  There is an old adage which says it is easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.  The adage is true, but what it fails to advise is the end result.  You may get what you are looking to accomplish done, but if the impact is so great that others stop trusting you, the only strategy you have left is to continue the same adage.

Recommendation #3: Clarify Boundaries When Appropriate
Once you set the expectation for who is responsible for what area(s), create processes to get clarification if something isn’t clear. Many times there are “gray areas” in areas of responsibility, which also leads to conflict. Responsibilities cannot always, nor should they always be “black and white”, but if you have turf wars because your employees claim a responsibility wasn’t clear, look to clarify and define responsibilities when it makes sense. Don’t let fuzzy areas and confusion last too long within your organization.

Recommendation #4: Communicate Intent
If you intend to encroach on someone else’s turf, inform the property owner. You wouldn’t go into someone else’s house without knocking. Don’t encroach on someone else’s area of responsibility without asking if they can accomplish what you need first in a timely manner. The business process owner also will need to be able to meet your requirement, unless it conflicts with a larger strategy.

Recommendation #5: Respect expertise
I’ve visited several large companies and one thing that always intrigues me is corporate cultures. I admittedly don’t know much about Cisco other than a few visits I’ve made, but have to say they have really impressed me each time I’ve been there. Working at Cisco, and attending an “Executive briefing” are likely two separate experiences, but each time I am there I tell others the same thing: they respect one another. I’ve been in all day and half-day sessions where different groups from within their organization come in to present. Each department is highly respectful of one another’s area of expertise. It is refreshing and something most companies lack based on what I’ve seen.

Recommendation #6: Reward, hire, promote, and fire based (in part with) on how collaborative team members are
If you set boundaries but promote, reward, and hire employees who encroach onto other employee’s areas of responsibility in a hostile way, it encourages others to do the same within the team. I know of several instances where leaders within companies “steamroll” other departments in order to quickly accomplish what they are looking to do. Always try to avoid doing this, and more importantly, never encourage that type of behavior. Steamrolling others is a way to get something done quickly, but when you need those who you “ran over” in the future, how willing do you think they will be to trust, and collaborate with you?

What are some areas of opportunity in your business for better collaboration?  What recommendations do you have?

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