Developing Cross Functional Responsibility

The Challenge

It’s a typical staff meeting. The function heads are around the table with the boss. One of them describes a hiccup or problem he is encountering that is outside of his control – it originates in another department for example.

An action item gets assigned in the meeting, and we move on to the next topic.

Good to go, right? Isn’t that the boss’s job?

Let’s expand the role of the boss a bit. Rather than being the conduit of all information, isn’t the role really to “Ensure cross-functional coordination is happening?”

If these meetings are weekly, there is weekly cadence to this kind of coordination, meaning if the issue comes up immediately after a meeting, it is a week before a decision is made. On average, it is a few days.

Let’s look at the nature of the language being used. The implied (but often unstated) question being asked by the function heads is “What do you want me to do?” The even worse implication is “I’ll work on cross functional issues when I get an action item to do it.” Not exactly teamwork.

Here’s another example.

Three functional managers all work in the same building… actually in the same open room. The building isn’t even that big. You can find anyone who is anywhere in the building in less than 5 minutes, just by standing up and walking around.

Their common boss is a in another city, a couple of hours away.

As he talks to these functional managers, they tell him of issues. But they haven’t talked to their counterpart who is 20 feet away. They are expecting the boss to do that. To say this exasperates the boss (who “gets it”) is an understatement.

In yet another organization, we are talking to various department directors about process improvement. Nearly every one of them cited problems in other departments as disruptions to their processes.

These Directors are implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) expecting the CEO and Executive Team to issue directives to the other departments to fix these problems. The problem comes in when the Executive Team accepts the “assignment” and facilitates the communication. Now it’s their job.

Here is the question that surfaced in this organization: The managers were responsible for organizing and managing the processes that are internal to the department. If the Directors aren’t the ones responsible for that cross-departmental coordination… whose job is it? And if it is someone else’s job, what value are the Directors actually adding by managing the managers’ management of the internal processes, and commiserating about the problems from other departments?

All of these cases are the consequence of a management process that sends reports up, and sends decisions down. This develops a deeply rooted unconscious set of habits that are hard to change even when all agree it should be changed.

What Doesn’t Work

Saying “We need to do a better job talking to each other” isn’t going to work. Even saying “You need to talk directly to Dave about that” really doesn’t work because:

  • It is still telling him what to do.
  • The behavior repeats for every instance because “Jim” is still habitually coming to the boss for direction.

What We Are Trying

The objective (challenge) is to get the boss out of job being the sole conduit for cross functional communication. We want these guys working as a team.

In one of these cases, the boss and I took a page from David Marquet’s book, and thought it might help if he (the boss) made it clear that he is going to refuse to be the intermediary in these conversations. Now… how does he create the environment where this cross-coordination is happening as a matter of routine?

David Marquet’s “Ladder of Leadership” model may be useful here.

Grasp the Current Condition

“Start with Awareness, and Just Listen”

         – David Marquet, author “Turn the Ship Around”

imageTake a week and just listen to the words people use when talking about cross-functional problems. Are they simply stating the problem and hoping the boss will pick up doing something about it – and tell someone what to do?

Make a tick-mark on the ladder diagram for the level of each conversation.

Are they implicitly or explicitly looking to be told what to do? (Telling Jim to “Talk to Dave” or even asking “Have you talked to Dave?” is telling them what to do.)

Where is your center of mass?

“Tell me what to do” is the bottom rung. Your own current condition may well be different, but if you have read this far and this still feels relevant to you, it likely isn’t much different.

Establish the Next Target Condition

What words does the boss want to hear when one of those managers is letting him know what is going on? Not in the ideal situation, but at the next level – up one or two rungs.

For example, instead of saying “We’ve got this problem from Dave’s department.” and waiting to be told “Have you talked to Dave?” what does the boss want to hear from this department head?

Maybe “We’ve got this problem from Dave’s department, and I intend to talk to Dave to confirm that he understands what we need from him.”

Apply Rapid Iterations of PDCA

OK, now that the boss knows what words he wants to hear, how does the boss change his response so when he hears “We’ve got this problem from Dave’s department” the boss’s response drives thinking and initiative back down the chain.

Stealing another line from Marquet, maybe the boss says “OK, what do you think I’m thinking right now?”

“ummm… I’m thinking you want me to go talk to Dave about this.”

“Great. What do you expect to happen?” and then “OK, when can you let me know how it actually went, and what you learned?”

Ideally the boss wants to continue this process, setting successive targets until he hears “We had this problem, but Dave and I worked out a solution, and this is what we’ve done.”

or they only come to the boss with a problem that requires the boss to cross-coordinate with one of his peers, but they come with a solid recommendation.

Step by step.

Never give up on your people.

4 thoughts on “Developing Cross Functional Responsibility

  1. “In one of these cases, the boss and I took a page from David Marquet’s book, and thought it might help if he (the boss) made it clear that he is going to refuse to be the intermediary in these conversations. Now… how does he create the environment where this cross-coordination is happening as a matter of routine?”

    Typical problem being is that some bosses need micro manage by being informed of the activity or have togive the “OK” of the coordination between the department managers or one of the managers doesn’t act unless directed to by the boss.

    1. This brings up the question: why does the boss not have confidence in his subordinates’ ability to make these decisions?

      Is it lack of technical competence – something he needs to teach?

      Or is it lack of clarity of what result must be achieved – something he needs to communicate?

  2. Mark – all contexts aren’t the same. In a government context it’s not necessarily micro-managing or a lack of competencies. Sometimes directors don’t have all the information about decisions that are pending, policy direction, etc. and they simpley need the input of the sponsor level.

    1. So the obstacle to reaching the next level – where those directors are considered able to make those decisions is that they don’t have the information they need.

      What would be the first step to discover what information they actually require, or what is preventing them from having it?

      This is a great example of how to, step by step, move toward a target condition ot reducing the bureaucracy by one level.

      Maybe the first experiment would be to, rather than just issue direction, to first ask the Director what decision they would make. “What do you think we should do?” with the intent of learning the limits of their clarity on the intended policies and direction.

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