Improving internal collaboration

by Luis Huete, Speaker & Management Thinker

One of the most frequent concerns top managers share is the difficulty to achieve good coordination between departments, areas or functions. They are concerned about the rather deficient collaboration between the people who manage the business on a day-to-day basis and the negative impact that this has on the evolution of results.

For different reasons – the absence of organizational stimuli, the personal profiles of the managers, metrics and incentives that do not favour collaboration – it seems that a significant number of managers put more interest in achieving objectives “their way” than in achieving their objectives and those of the company in a harmonious way and with respect to the rest of their colleagues.

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In fact, the variable that most influences the improvement of service quality, and the subsequent satisfaction of clients and their retainment, is the existence of a culture of collaboration within a company.

In the worst cases, a blockage exists between certain areas, motivated by a personal conflict between managers of the respective areas. In the best of cases, we can find an extraordinary capacity to resolve complex problems between areas that is based on a very high degree of collaboration existent amongst the respective areas. The difference in the rhythm of problem resolution between one case and another is determinant to the sound operation of a business.

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The lack of confidence as well as the lack of good protocols of collaboration will deteriorate interfunctional communication. The final result is an impediment of decision making within the company. Conversely, coordination plus confidence results in collaboration and resolution of complex problems.

The problem of collaboration between areas is important because without it, there will be a difficulty in the execution of strategic projects which consequently has a negative effect in the market. Moreover, the synergies required for cost reduction or the improvement of revenues, which are so necessary during these current moments of crisis, will come with more difficulty without the existence of good lateral coordination and a good level of confidence between departments, functions and areas of responsibility. The following paragraphs will mention several initiatives that will help improve lateral coordination and the degree of confidence within companies.

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Points to focus on that develop lateral coordination and confidence
1. Develop horizontal careers in which a number of managers rotate from one department to another. The objectives are not only to acquire more experience of the business, but also to develop a network of human relationships in the departments one has worked which will in turn favour the resolution of problems between the areas. The rotation will help ensure that the directors of respective areas do not design and manage these areas tailored to their own personalities, but rather to the strategy the company has at that moment.

Moreover, a manager who has had the same function for a period of time and who believes he is the director of that area because he knows the most of that area, can unconsciously kill new forms of knowledge within his area. Who ­would dare to contradict their boss!

2. Develop the careers of managers with a more cooperative attitude towards their colleagues. It would make sense to create a program for „high potential” managers in which career paths are „designed” in different departments and whereby the importance of creating bridges across various areas of the company is underscored.

3. Plan more and better „fun-communicational” events between departments throughout the course of the year. This will help develop informal relationships amongst the people of the company. These events will reinforce personal relationships, relax the atmosphere and allow getting to know other facets of people.

4. Relocate the canteen/cafeteria, meeting rooms, restrooms, and even offices of people so that it becomes inevitable to meet people in the corridor and to “run into” them throughout the day. This relocation is especially important for functions which are the most emotionally distant from one another but whose improved coordination is important to the company.

5. Design a symmetrical organizational chart of functions, areas and departments. This chart is to favour people within the organization that have intermediate responsibilities, so that they know who their counterparts are in other areas, functions or departments. The idea is that the parity and symmetry develop communication and coordination without having to raise all issues to higher levels.

6. Create metrics of performance and incentives that develop coordinated work and common objectives. It is important to ensure that there are no objectives, performance metrics or rewards in different departments that are not consistent or create conflict between them.

7. Invest in information systems that integrate the whole company so that people can obtain real time information from other areas. That way a collective knowledge can be created rather than smokestacks of knowledge. For example, the intranet should ease the access of information from other areas and „self-service” should be possible without the need to ask for „favours.” Tied to this is the need to integrate databases in order to develop the analytical capacity that further develops the „intelligence” of business and the capacity to respond to stakeholder requests.

8. Accustom the organization to work in interdepartmental groups for the majority of important projects of the future. Make people feel that their ­performance within these teams has almost the same amount of importance as their regular work. In order to achieve this, it is important that the teams have an efficient methodology and that the teams’ output has a real impact in the running of the company.

9. Encourage top management to respond to problems with templates for resolution in order to avoid that the same problems are always brought to them by members of their teams. The objective here is to stop the organization from getting used to the idea that in order to solve problems, they must always be raised with superiors.

10. Empower those managers who ­coordinate work amongst people who are not hierarchically dependant. In organizations with vertical structures by product, these coordinating managers are usually responsible for geographic regions or segments. The work of these managers can be difficult if they are not given tools that grant them a certain formal power. An example of such could be to have the power to decide the percentage of bonus allocated to the people they coordinate. If a matrix structure is used, keep trying to achieve more symmetry amongst managers so that they have a similar weight when defining objectives and the mediation of work. The lack of coordination amongst managers of a matrix will make the people’s work who have reporting lines to several managers impossible.

11. Remove „Alpha Males” from the organization. Despite the fact that they achieve good short-term results, managers with the „alpha male” syndrome will release information bit by bit and will hinder, for personal reasons, the creation of teams that share ­information and create a common sentiment of the future. The idea these individuals have is that they gain power by having everything passed by them and only them, making them indispensable.

The challenge of lateral collaboration requires brave answers. Lateral collaboration together with confidence, corporate culture, and the internalization of a common project of the future, all form part of the cohesion of the company. This cohesion adds sustainability to business results. This cohesion also helps „hold the lines” during more difficult market conditions. Cohesion is always a product of good leadership; of a leadership that is not only thinking of the next quarter, but the next quarter century.

Luis Huete is one of the greatest thinkers on international management. He is considered by every 3 out of 4 Spanish executives as „the best management thinker in Spain”, according to information from the Institute for International Research (2008).