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Calamity! The skies grew dark and my heart sank as the realization wound its way slowly from the lower layers of my intuition to the peak of my consciousness. There was just no other way; in order to deliver our latest audacious goal to market, we would need to work with that team.
Feel free to fill in the missing team name yourself, but why is it that having to reach outside your team conjures up images of doom and disaster almost before the first message has been launched into that group's intake channel?
But cross-functional collaboration doesn’t have to be a nightmare. In my 24 years working in tech, I’ve been fortunate to work with both non-engineering and tech teams alike and have learned how to make these collaborations productive rather than panic-inducing. Now I’m sharing my hard-earned advice for navigating these tricky relationships.
Building initial trust
Humans are tribal – it’s in our DNA. Left alone, we naturally coalesce into groups that share similar beliefs and priorities and we are distrustful of those from the ‘outside’. So it is within organizations. Whether it’s by discipline or by interest, we are drawn to people who mirror our own tendencies. So when two teams, usually with different backgrounds and skill sets, come together to work towards a shared goal, naturally there is inertia and sometimes sparks fly!
Trust is built over time. If you’ve never worked with a specific group before, you’ll likely hear stories about them before you actually encounter them. Start from a position of objectivity and assume good intent. Remember these stories will all be colored by the narrator’s own biases and experiences. Take them all with a grain of salt and keep an open mind. Over time and through multiple interactions, your own understanding of the team will emerge based on data and real-world interactions as opposed to rumors and reputations.
Breaking through organizational inertia
An object at rest will remain at rest and the same can be said about a team within a larger organization. A group or individual will operate independently because that’s typically (from their point of view) the fastest way to get anything done. The tell-tale sign is ‘not invented here’ syndrome, the tendency to avoid anything that didn’t originate from within the group.
Don’t be afraid to make the first move; a strictly informal 1:1 to meet, share context, and explore options between two team members can often lay the foundation to bring two larger groups together. Allow yourself to be the unofficial ambassador and jump-start the relationship. It takes effort to bridge between teams, but if you can overcome the initial resistance and friction it takes when establishing a relationship, you can move much faster as you share lessons learned and code reuse across teams.
‘We’re blocked by Legal’ or ‘We’ll need to loop in Compliance’. These infamous teams are made up of….people! Yes people, walking, talking, just-like-you-and-me people. They’re not faceless entities bent on hindering our productivity. Be watchful for nameless organizations in your backlog. It’s so much more human to deal with Pat instead of Legal. It builds trust, engenders empathy, and dispels fear of the unknown.
Coming together through adversity
There’s nothing better than a crisis to bring teams together and forge new bonds. Some of the best relationships have been formed through disparate teams triaging customer-facing issues in real-time. Although stressful in the moment, knowing that the team you rely on (for example, SRE, Infrastructure, or Cloud Software) has your back and moreover shares the same priorities as you (for example, solving the customer incident and restoring service even though it’s 2am) is incredibly powerful.
Customer-facing issues are often outside anyone’s control so pitching in to resolve them demonstrates a shared responsibility and reinforces the notion that we are all one team. Over time these shared experiences become the stories we tell each other and lay the foundation for an organization’s culture. While I don’t recommend manufacturing issues just to build that trust, remember you always have the opportunity to turn a bad, stressful situation into an opportunity to forge long-lasting bonds. Embrace the crisis: it makes us stronger.
Cultivating empathy – the hidden superpower
Marvel really missed the boat. We have a broad cast of characters in their universe but there is not a single hero with the superpower of empathy. Hold your own opinions loosely and don’t be afraid to see an issue from another’s perspective. This makes you a powerful mediator, widens your perspective, and might just open up new potential solutions when two groups can’t seem to negotiate.
Recognize your colleagues! This applies to your teammates but has a multiplier effect when the kudos comes from a completely separate group. When things go well make a point to call it out publicly with gratitude (say thank you) and then follow up with a direct thank you offline so the sincerity is felt. It costs nothing, but it pays huge dividends.
It’s not always possible to make things work; competing priorities or delivery pressures or resource constraints are always in play. In situations like this, it’s important to be transparent early and often. How you show up matters. You’re representing your team. Your team’s reputation is built on individual interactions with each of its members. When working with a partner, think of yourself as the interface and the team’s internals as a closed box. By sharing your blockers and why you just can’t meet another’s timeline or expectations, you enable empathy on their part and lay the groundwork for a healthy partnership long term.
I’ve talked a lot about working with different teams in this article, but it’s important to remember that all your teams share a common goal: to drive your company’s mission. Here at Peloton, we say ‘Together We Go Far’ and we mean it; our goal is to connect the world through fitness and we bring our various talents and capabilities together to achieve it. In that sense, our company (and yours too) is one team. So the next time you need to collaborate with another group, keep the big picture in mind and you might be surprised what you can accomplish.