11 Catalysts for Cross-Departmental Collaboration

Finally, you got the go-ahead for a project that’s been on your wishlist for a long time, maybe it’s repurposing conference content for e-learning programs or integrating the LMS with your AMS. But one big obstacle remains: getting the buy-in and commitment of colleagues from other departments. How can you encourage the cross-departmental collaboration required to make your project a success?

The colleagues you need on your project team don’t report to you, so you don’t have any authority. But you need their cooperation, subject matter expertise, and time. It’s a tough ask. They’re just as busy as you so their boss may not want them working on “your” project.

Everyone wins if you can get the cross-departmental (or cross-functional) collaboration you seek because it will have long-lasting effects on your organization. An MIT/Deloitte survey found that cross-functional collaboration helps the most digitally advanced companies create business value and establish competitive advantage.

11 catalysts for cross-departmental collaboration

To create the right chemistry on your project team, you must first create the right conditions for collaboration.

#1: Executive sponsor

Every cross-departmental project needs an executive sponsor, someone who has the authority to deliver the budget and staff resources needed for the project. At the project kick-off meeting, the sponsor puts the project in context for the project stakeholders and team by explaining how it aligns with organizational strategy and why it’s mission-imperative.

The sponsor is also a collaboration enforcer who comes to the rescue when you run into obstacles, for example, a department head who’s reluctant to release staff for a meeting.

#2: Common vision

Your colleagues must buy into the project’s purpose. For example, let’s say you’re heading up a project to develop a new leadership training program. This program takes a holistic approach to leadership development by serving industry needs as well as chapter and association needs.

However, you can’t do it alone. You need the help of colleagues in other departments as well as chapter staff. You won’t get their cooperation unless they understand why the association is investing in the project and how it helps the organization achieve its goals. They must believe any additional work is worth the effort. How can you connect the project with their department’s work and goals, or, most importantly, the association’s goals?  

A common vision can also be developed by addressing common pain points. What related pain points affect their work? What member pain points can you solve together?

The executive sponsor can also help make the connection between the project and the work of other departments. If you’re having trouble making that connection, ask vendors, consultants, and your professional network about associations that have taken on similar projects. How did it positively impact individual departments and the association as a whole?

cross-departmental collaboration

#3: Personal WIIFM

Colleagues may see the organizational benefits, but the personal WIIFM (what’s in it for me?) will have a bigger impact. How will the project’s success make their job and/or life easier? How will it affect the data they use, the decisions they make, or the members they regularly interact with?

How will they personally benefit from participating in the project? You can sell the project as an opportunity to develop or deepen skills, enhance their reputation, and gain valuable experience they can apply to future projects.

#4: Co-creation

People are more committed to a project when they have some sense of ownership. When appropriate, include them in the project planning process from the start. Listen to their ideas, address their concerns, and take their feedback seriously. People are more likely to support what they help design.

#5: Clarity

Project team members must have a clear understanding of what the project is about, how the team will work, and their role in the project. Everyone must understand what’s expected of them. Discuss and document roles and responsibilities, including who’s depending on them, for example, Jan can’t do task B until Marcia does task A.

Estimate the amount of their time the project will require and when their participation is needed for meetings, project tasks, testing, and training. Make sure you plan the timeline around non-negotiable events, such as conferences, meetings, lobbying calendar, and scheduled time off.

#6: Psychological safety

Google believes psychological safety is the most important dynamic in a successful team. Psychological safety is the feeling of security that allows team members to ask “stupid” questions, speak their mind, suggest ideas, take risks, and put themselves in positions of social vulnerability.

Without psychological safety, people are reluctant to ask questions and therefore may move forward without a complete understanding of the task at hand. They’re less likely to admit mistakes. They’re hesitant to take on a new role. Psychological safety creates the conditions for collaboration.

#7: Ground rules

To create a psychologically safe environment, establish ground rules for meetings and communications.

“Set a positive and constructive tone to alleviate any fear and defensiveness,” said Diane Stoner, senior consultant at DelCor Technology Solutions. “Encourage people to be frank while also emphasizing the need for objective and constructive conversation. Impersonalize feedback. Don’t refer to a team member except when praise is due. No voice has more weight than any other. Everyone must contribute, no matter their role. The goal is to improve project performance, not to cast blame or aspersions for things that may have gone wrong.”

cross-departmental collaboration

#8: Frequent communication

Trust between team members is dependent upon regular, open, and frank communication. Set expectations for communication: who reports what to whom and when.

Always opt for transparency. Keep people in the loop. Don’t throw any surprises at them and don’t let rumor mills get started.

Find the right tool for project communication. Email isn’t always the best choice. Ask your IT department about the tools people are already using, perhaps Slack, Teams, or something else.

#9: Familiarity

The people on your project team may never have worked together. They’ll work better together if they get to know each other. They don’t need to become best buds, but collaboration and trust are more likely if you can break down the walls between them.

Schedule time—lunch or coffee breaks—for people to sit together and talk about something other than the project. Instead of seeing each other as “the woman from IT” or “the guy from membership,” it’s Claire who also loves Succession or Mark who also has toddlers at home.

Warning: people with busy schedules have limited patience for forced fun, so start these sessions with a project-related (and necessary) discussion. Then, have food delivered so you can have a more personal chat over lunch. To ensure they stay for lunch, wrap up the meeting with action items as people finish eating.

#10: Conflict management

Different approaches to work or communication can cause resentment and frustrations on the project team. Some decisions won’t be popular with everyone.

Acknowledge, listen to, and address concerns. Don’t view disagreements as “right vs. wrong.” Encourage the team (and remind yourself) to keep their focus on the bigger picture and common goals. What resolution will be best for project goals or for the association and/or its members? Work together to find a mutually desirable outcome.

#11: Celebration

Celebrate small wins with individuals and project milestones with the whole team. Celebration is especially important at the start of a project when people are getting used to additional work. You can motivate the team by celebrating early accomplishments.

Collaboration leads to new work relationships, which could become the basis for new cross-departmental projects and opportunities. By incorporating these 11 catalysts into your next project, you’ll increase the likelihood of success and help to foster a collaboration culture at your organization.


Let's talk about your next project at ASAE TEC

Our team at WBT Systems are known for our collaborative, supportive approach to working with our clients. If you are planning a new project for your education and certification programs, come find us at Booth 814 at ASAE TEC 2019. Our team will be happy to talk to you about your project and how TopClass LMS could help you to transform continuing education for your learners.

Find TopClass LMS by WBT Systems at Booth 814 at ASAE TEC 2019
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