Collaborating Across Borders: Five Keys to Creating Powerful Partnerships

Collaborating across borders. If this dog and cat can do it, so can we. Image by Hannah W on flickr.

Collaborating across borders. If this dog and cat can do it, so can we. Image by Hannah W on flickr.

Several weeks ago, a distraught vice president called. His organization had just been restructured and he had just received ownership for two new divisions. He needed to integrate the new divisions quickly and help them collaborate with his existing organization.

The problem was that he had inherited a group of people who didn’t understand why the change had happened. They were struggling to comprehend why they should redesign their processes to accommodate the new organization chart. In addition, they were used to working alone and saw no reason to collaborate with their new peers. The VP had to help them find the way while continuing to raise the performance bar.

This situation is not unusual. Executives live in a world of change where the only constants seem to be the need to boost performance, increase productivity, and cut costs.

In this highly matrixed, driven, global environment, there are too few people and too much work for us to section ourselves off from others. We rely on our colleagues to share knowledge, solve problems jointly, provide data and information, and support our work. In return, we do the same.

Successful partnerships take time and focused effort. But where to start? Here are some tips on collaborating across borders.

Start with the Why

People have a lot to do. If they don’t truly understand the importance of collaboration, they won’t do it. For example, someone might philosophically agree with a vague rationale for collaboration, such as, “It will improve our customer service.” But that doesn’t give a person the motivation to work across boundaries when deadlines loom and the pressure is high. Why take time for some fuzzy concept that may or not be achieved?

A much more compelling rationale is: “The X Department works with our customers every day. If we don’t develop close relationships with the department, we’ll never know enough to please our customers.” This rationale lays it all out on the table: what the partner has that is critical, why it is needed, and what consequences come from failing to collaborate.

Coming up with this kind of business rationale for collaboration is the first step in building a successful relationship across divisions.

Build Individual Relationships to Build Group Relationships

Simply agreeing to collaborate doesn’t make it happen. Successful collaboration takes time, interaction, and effort. If an organization needs synergy between divisions, individuals from both divisions must form good relationships.

This doesn’t happen overnight. Relationships grow when people develop rapport and trust. This comes over time as people learn that they root for the Red Sox, share a passion for old movies, or enjoy vegetarian food. They learn one another’s styles; they discover that one likes to get right down to business while the other enjoys engaging in small talk before beginning work.

Once rapport and trust are in place, individuals find themselves with powerful allies in the other organization. There’s an added benefit to developing these relationships across divisions: People can develop friends at work, which, according to a recent Gallup study, is the most important indicator of job satisfaction.

Get Specific About Execution

Many find crafting visions and building relationships to be exciting and engaging. Yet, seeing a vision through to completion requires a strong sense of discipline. This is an area where many alliances fall short: They fail to get specific about how they’ll produce.

Getting specific about execution doesn’t need to be painful. In a meeting with key representatives from both groups, identify short- and long-term goals for collaboration, processes to support completion of the work, roles and responsibilities for each group, and a schedule for the work.

Prepare for the Unexpected

It’s a rare organization that doesn’t get thrown a curveball once in a while and a rare alliance that clarifies everything as well as it needs to up front. To develop a truly extraordinary alliance, get clear up front about how to handle organizational changes or group misunderstandings. What process will be used to manage through these challenges? What is the escalation procedure?

Take the Time

The final tip for creating successful alliances across divisions is simple yet seems to challenge many: Take the time to make it work. Schedule periodic offsite retreats to refocus, plan for upcoming work, and resolve any accumulated tensions. Onsite meetings to share best practices, evaluate progress, or identify improvement opportunities can also work well. These ongoing connections, conversations, and commitments can make an alliance thrive.

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