Strategy, Legal & Operations

9 tips to encourage collaboration across departments

“Ugh, they just don’t get it.”

How many times have you heard this whispered—or worse— by disgruntled employees who feel like other teams in the company aren’t playing by the same rules, committed to the same mission, or even playing on the same team? The problem—effective collaboration across departments—is more common than you think.

In fact, as we have shifted to remote and flexible working due to digital transformation and the coronavirus pandemic, collaboration across departments has become both more important and more difficult. The Harvard Business Review shared that the same qualities required for success in today’s digital marketplace—large, virtual, diverse, and well-educated—are also often the same qualities that undermine it. So, what’s a modern leader in today’s marketplace to do?

Of course, there’s no simple fix or magic bullet to creating collaboration across departments. But the following are some solid tips that could help make the process a bit more cooperative.

1. Make sure everyone is on the same page

Explain the roles everyone needs to play to achieve the common goal and speaking in terms everyone can understand. No one can follow the same mission if they each call it something different. Create a shared language among all teams—technical or not—so that everyone understands the importance of the mission, how they play into it, and why their role matters.

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2. Encourage consistent open communication

One of the things that continues to amaze me in the business world is the lack of communication among teams and silos. Communication is one of the world’s easiest ways to increase understanding, transparency, compassion, appreciation—you name it! And few companies actually do it well. If you want to be successful in today’s marketplace, you need to promote a culture of communication. This means sharing the timelines and work goals associated with different departments. It means building a healthy understanding of each team’s role in the organization, and how no single team could exist without the others. Without this, you will never experience true collaboration.

3. Practice transparency—from the top

Yes, this goes along with communication. But, it also involves the overall willingness of leaders to share and admit their own failures—their weaknesses—their human-ness. When teams see that it’s OK for their leaders to be human, they’ll feel less defensive, and more collaborative, in the process.

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4. Enable empathy and understanding

No, you can’t “make” someone empathetic. But you can provide avenues to help teammates get to know one another on a more personal basis, which in turn creates personal understanding. When you know where someone is coming from you’re more likely to make allowances, help, and communicate when needed.

5. Lead by example

For me, this is a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how many executives want teammates to do things—communicate, practice transparency, offer supportive feedback, and collaborate across departments—when they’re not actually doing those things themselves. I’ve said many times in regards to instituting successful digital transformation: executives must champion whatever change they want to make in their companies. If they aren’t walking the walk, there is no reason anyone else should.

6. Encourage open feedback

What’s even better than a culture that collaborates? One where people feel encouraged and safe expressing their opinions and even failing once in a while. Why? Because real innovation happens when people feel safe trying new things—taking chances—and trusting other people to have their back. Yes, polite collaboration can get things done. But honest and forthright collaboration can get things done better.

7. Create a sense of community and collaborative culture

I have a friend who worked at the dialysis-turned-healthcare-company DaVita. The company is known for its culture-rich approach to leadership, and it’s clear why. One of the things DaVita teams did every morning was hold a “homeroom” session where each teammate did a quick round-robin of their tasks for the day and acknowledged when they had free time to help others who may be experiencing task overload. The experience allowed teammates to understand the work levels of each person, and to experience true appreciation for those who stepped up to help when they had the capacity to do so. That concept of encouraging the creation of unique “signature relationship practices” is huge in building collaboration across departments.

8. Share technology and information

If your teams don’t know or have access to the same types of data, people, performance measurements, and tools as other teams in the company, you’ll experience bitterness, mistrust, and—most likely—mutiny. This goes back to transparency—keep lines of communication open and make it easy for teams to approach one another about shared access to people, software, and information.

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9. Get to know other departmental processes

When we start to acknowledge the places where our work overlaps with other teams—and to understand the work we both need to do for those intersections to mesh successfully—we come to appreciate the whole business process, not just our part of it. For instance: Another friend of mine creates proposals for an engineering firm in Southern California. The proposal team was frustrated by the engineers constantly requesting proposal submissions at the last-minute, which pushed all of their other deadlines off track. What they found is that when they communicated the importance of that particular work intersection to the engineers, and how pivotal it was to the submission of successful proposals, the process improved. They were still often late due to heavy workloads, but they were much more respectful of the proposal team’s workload and their own responsibility in making the proposal a success.

There is no magic way to create shared and successful collaboration across departments. Hiring more experts won’t do it. (Actually, it could even make worse.) Also, there is no quick shortcut or app to make teams collaborate successfully. It just takes good old-fashioned commitment, culture, and work.

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Editor’s note: This article was first published in June 2018 and has been updated for relevance.