Strengthening Your Intra- and Inter-Department Partnership – The Welcome Side Effect of Design Thinking

Imagine a world where customer service, procurement, marketing, finance, operations, human resources, and sales can truly help each other and work together, instead of stepping on each others’ toes and pointing fingers. A world where all parts of the organizations work together with a shared sense of purpose, no matter how different their cultures, processes, and systems, have been in the past.

A world where the roles are clearly defined and where employees are no longer frustrated with their department and the enterprise as a whole because when they have identified an opportunity or a problem, they know how to address it, and create effective, long-term solutions that are scalable, executable, and realistic. Never a gap, never a hang-up, where customers, enjoy a smooth experience throughout their journey with the brand.

The senior leadership can dream.

However, in reality for example, often, customer experience, marketing, operations, finance and sales professionals actually think their jobs are grueling because of their counterpart’s “incompetencies and need to control.” How many marketers have you heard disapproving sales’ aptitude for squandering opportunities they worked so hard to provide? How many times have you heard sales executives complain that they are unable to close a new deal as the delivery team goofed up the previous project or due to lack of quality leads or nonavailability of a relevant product/service in their kitty addressing emerging market needs? How often have you heard the CFO raising questions about the marketing spend versus ROI? This pessimistic viewpoint not only makes for the awkward company at New Year parties, but it also impacts the customer’s experience along the journey and, ultimately, the bottom line.

Creating a strong partnership between the cross-functional heterogenous teams has plagued organizations since…well, forever. However, to adopt a scale to stay competitive in an era of increasingly accelerated disruption, whether done proactively or reactively, is particularly difficult for organizations that operate in deeply entrenched silos. Hence, most companies need to rethink and retool by redesigning their offerings and operations, and ensure that relevant information flows freely between all departments in the company.

During ‘business-as-usual,” silos help establish boundaries and maintain order and exist to harness specific job functions using knowledge-based skills, which are vital to accountability and productivity. However, when an organization needs to transform, silos in this context mean that the disparate parts of the company are not working together, and are unable to cooperate, communicate and collaborate with one another. Silos become stubborn obstacles in the company’s trajectory to growth and profitability. This is because the departments are fundamentally mistrustful, or are culturally misaligned, or territorial and act in the interest of their silos.

To muddy the waters even more, companies are frequently rehauling their systems, processes and operating models, and changing people at key leadership positions, which results in miscommunication or even worse, no communication at all. Most often, multiple sticking points complicate the change efforts and make alignment of any kind a challenge in itself, and delay or derail delivery of their benefits.

The good news is: It does not have to be this way.

Through multiple client engagements and finding by external studies, we have found that companies that have embedded design thinking in their organizational culture have been able to develop a strong partnership between the intra- and inter-departments, as a welcome side-effect of design-thinking by eliminating the problems silos cause.  Design thinking develops three significant components of common ground in multi-disciplinary teams: a trust-based team culture, shared vocabulary, and tangible artifacts.

There are real, practical steps that, when applied, not only keep team members off each others’ backs, when more than one silo shares knowledge, focus, and control. It helps them cooperate and collaborate, by losing the tower vision and view at and see things from the diverse perspectives of different people or a department, align priorities to achieve their goals with co-ordinated decision making, and engage with customers in a united manner.

In this post, I share our learnings that you can use to ease the tension between your intra- and inter-department teams. Whether you use design thinking or not, following these tips will help you deliver a joint effort towards driving innovation and retaining strategic capabilities that are essential to have the “right to win.”  

1. Keep The Customer At The Epicenter Of Your Efforts – Know Your Customer and Know Your Employees

Employees and customers are two sides of the same coin. Many organizations spend huge amounts examining their customers’ experiences, yet very few spend the same on understanding their employee experience. The experience you provide your employee with tools and process directly impacts the experience they can then provide for your customers. Inferior tools equal conversations with customers that go “Oh….sorry, I cannot help you with that. Another person in the system is handling it. I can transfer you to the person who does that…please hold,” which in turn equates to customer wrath.

As much as we are talking about breaking departmental silos and helping them partner more effectively, that is NOT the end objective. The customer’s experience and satisfaction must be the heartbeat behind every action your teams decide to make. Focusing on what makes your customers happy can ease some of the “us vs. them” tension that arises because of the silos. Use the customer’s experience as your benchmark, to dictate the partnership between the different departments, and forming cross-functional teams will improve without having to think too hard about it. Though it is appealing to focus on sales targets, campaign stats, and query turn around time, your customers are best served by aligning the different departments. When your focus shifts away from individual performance and towards that high-level goal of customer-centricity, you will be speechless how well your organization will function.

2. Identify Common Rallying Points Internally To Define The Pain Gain Equation

Provide a common purpose for all departments to unite: why the customers are using your products and/or services, and how can the employees who support them better. Do the insights gained from research, tell stories about what you see and in revealing the pains, you can find gains.

By responding to these questions honestly, you do not even have to deliberate how to strengthen the departmental partnership; as it just happens. 

  • What precedences do you or your department have that are not aligned with another’s?
  • Put yourself in the shoes of the other silo – what would make that silo appreciate and acknowledge that your department’s need was a priority?
  • What information/support do you need from another silo that you are not getting on time?
  • What know-how do you or your department have that could be valuable to others?
  • In what areas would increase cooperation and collaboration and give up some autonomy be more beneficial for the business and customers than maintaining your individuality?

 

3. Clearly Define Roles and Responsibilities Of Inter-departmental Teams and How They Will Work Inside and Outside the Silos

This goes far beyond simply saying “finance does M, marketing does X, operations does Y, sales do Z.” Just as a doctor is not only a doctor, designers are not just designers; marketers, customer experience executives, operations head and so on are not just that either. To increase productivity (and show your colleagues respect), make sure your cross-functional team members are familiar with the roles and responsibilities of this team and each member and what is expected of them, formed with the intent to solve a problem or explore an opportunity.

As a representative of the silo, when you get back to your respective silos, they make sure that the other intra-department team members are up to speed on the perspectives of other silos and what responsibilities the joint task force representative has.  The next step is to get you their buy-in and commitment to work towards the final solution and meet the expectations of the joint task force from your silo. It helps you to deliberate the ins and outs of the alternative solutions internally, and you will save time as they know exactly whom to go to with an issue, and make your intra-department teams more efficient.

4. Realize When To Buzz Off Or Butt-in

The employee, well-intentioned as he/she can be, frequently doesn’t know how to act once the feedback from the end user has been handed off to the team. Can he/she make changes or continue doing what they were doing, or will that mess up the customer experience your brand is trying to build the solution? Hence each department must reach an understanding based on the context- set boundaries on how much will each team engage the end user, and make sure that each role in the silo fits into to provide the experience you have worked hard to create.

Because of this, a well-orchestrated rhythm of communication must be agreed upon in advance, so each silo knows when outreach will help the other silo, rather than detract from their efforts.

5. Reward Team Members Who Were (Directly) Not Involved As It Can Make All The Difference

It is easy to praise cross-functional team when they reach the goal. However, if each respective silo can show their appreciation for their counterpart’s contribution, it reinforces the idea of a communal effort to realize the solution. A little recognition can go a long way, so the next time a new problem or opportunity needs to be addressed, it ensure’s the internal team respond to the call in the first place, and keep the organization’s engine running.

It sounds almost too simple to be true, but it is important to remember that we are human beings working along with other human beings. We enjoy feeling valued and recognized for our efforts. By acknowledging the efforts and sharing the fruits of your labor with everyone who played a part, you will be amazed at their willingness to go the extra mile at your time of need, as they know their efforts will be noticed and appreciated. It is just not about getting the best from the engaged team and boosting their performance, but it about making a meaningful impact on another human being. You cannot move forward as a unified high performing team if you do not celebrate like one.

6. Operate Under Shared Metrics of Success

The transformation process to become customer-centric and future-ready often requires your organization to revisit its brand strategy, product/ service portfolio roadmap, customer segmentation and targeting priorities, positioning platform, online-offline channel integration, pricing, and many other items. As people tend to manage what is measured and rewarded, to gain clarity on what’s working and what is not and track progress towards outcomes and, shared performance metrics becomes a significant part of the change management process.

Let me use parenthood as an analogy to explain the need for shared metrics: each parent has an exclusive relationship and bonding with their child: differing styles of communication, day-to-day responsibilities, and so on. These individual roles are essential no doubt, but they are judged as a unit, and only viewed as “good” parents by a handful of measures: the amount of time they devote to their child, and his/her health and happiness, how they talk and treat them, for example. Applying the same logic to how each department goes about their roles and responsibilities: if the customer’s experience is not the key metric of success for the different departments neither will be as successful as possible, and the overall health of the organization will deteriorate.

Arriving at a shared purpose is illusionary without a consensus on the ways success will be measured and reported going forward.  A short list of shared performance metrics which strikes a right balance between the breadth and depth of visibility into current and future performances enables you to link strategy, operations, and business goals and collect data to measure results consistently and act on it. It not only ensures that all efforts remain aligned and continually improving through feedback, but it also enables the team members to hold each other accountable and learn from each other’s successes and failures and better coordinate efforts.

Conclusion

It may be grandiose to think that inter- and intra- department teams will ever have a completely flawless partnership. These diverse groups will always have different daily responsibilities and priorities; and their character traits that won’t always align in picture-perfect harmony. However, by embedding, design thinking into your organization’s strategy breaks the departmental silos and forms high performing teams, with the improvements in each team’s performance may be far-reaching. When you pause to reflect and think about it, each department is like a side of the uncut diamond. With the right attitudes, systems and operating models in place to polish them, they begin to look and act like a unified innovation engine and revenue machine.

 

By Vidya Priya Rao

About the author

Vidya Priya Rao (PhD), is the Founder and Director of Innovatus Marketers Touchpoint LLP, a customer experience, design thinking and marketing consulting firm based in Mumbai, India. She is a design thinking/service design thinking decoder and promotes a proven approach to build a design-led innovation culture. She is also a visiting faculty at leading B-Schools in India. She is an Executive, Marketing & Sales Coach, Trainer, and Keynote Speaker.

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