Creating a foundation for partnership: improving interdepartmental communication

Yesterday, I was asked for some input into an article about how to improve interdepartmental communication by reducing confusion and fostering empathy. A simple question perhaps, a list of communication how to’s is surely all that’s required. But let’s step back a moment to gain a fuller perspective.

Working in a particular profession, you get trained to think, analyse and operate in a specific way – almost without realising it. I saw this recently when working with a finance professional, who was promoted to lead a global multidisciplinary team. He didn’t realise the extent to which he’d been conditioned in his profession to think and act in a particular way. There was an ‘aha’ moment, when, as he described his working relationships. He noted “I get on really well with those from a finance and accounting background, but the others just don’t seem to be on board, struggle to ‘get’ what we are trying to achieve and don’t really work in the best way – they don’t think in the same way I do”. He articulated what it feels like to work with those who think and see the world in the same way as he does, and how difficult it can feel working with others who don’t.

How is this challenge different to working with an individual who happens to think and act differently? It’s not, it’s just exacerbated when groups of individual think similarly, but differently to other groups in the same organisation. Think of the group as a magnifier or multiplier of the individual experience.

Whether we’re in accounts, engineering, marketing or sales we are all working to achieve the best outcomes, with the best intent. Whatever function individuals are from, they are motivated to do what they can to achieve the goals and objectives they have been tasked to execute, in the way that they have been trained and know works for them. When two professionals come together, in the complex and frequently changing work environment that we all inhabit, they rarely, if ever stop to think about their different approaches or styles.

Our focus as busy professionals is on what’s immediate, how we can quickly execute and move on, focusing on the meetings ahead and the challenges of what we have to deliver. We are just not aware that our colleagues are looking at a different landscape. Rather than retreat into our silos because working with people who think and act differently to what we have come to expect is hard, how do we build insight, understanding and strong working relationships? How do we create a more productive work environment through improved interdepartmental communications? How do we appreciate each other’s landscapes in order to get to a shared way forward?

  • Getting everyone to look at the same outcome: What is the shared organisational purpose that all of the different parts of the business have in common? What are they there to deliver together? What is the difference that together, they can make that is important? Creating alignment around a shared purpose ensures that the wider team is pulling in the same direction.
  • Step back from the task in each meeting or interaction, and jointly define what a good outcome would look like for both or all parties involved. What is the purpose of the meeting in the first place and how does it relate to achieving the wider organisational purpose?
  • Step into the other’s shoes. If you’re an engineer meeting with a sales person, take a moment to consider, what does this look like from the Sales person’s perspective. What are the pressures on him / her that this situation creates? What would success look like for him / her?
  • Step forward together. Slow down to understand and to let the other catch up, be curious about what the landscape looks like from the other’s perspective? What are the risks and opportunities that they see? What is the shared view?
  • Create multidisciplinary teams and partnerships to deliver more effectively. Where possible, jointly task people from different disciplines to create more robust and resilient outcomes. Rather than avoid interaction, how can you get together earlier in a product or process life cycle before positions get ‘fixed’.

It takes discipline and focused attention to building effective working relationships. Whether the issues of interdisciplinary communication is about working better together, or about removing significant interdepartmental difficulties, a process such as the 31Practices is helpful. In this type of process the focus is on how individuals work together through creating daily practices that are followed and implemented by the entire workforce. This approach assists in creating new habits of operating that transcend the boundaries of professional disciplines and create organisation wide thinking habits and ways of working, or ‘culture’.

Williams & Whybrow (2013) THE 31 PRACTICES – how to release the power of your organisation’s values ……every day. LID Publishing.