I recently saw a photo of the sculpture, “Love”, an art installations at this year’s annual Burning Man event, where a temporary community of creatives is built in the desert of Nevada. Ukraine artist, Alexandr Milov created a wire construction of two figures in conflict, sitting back to back, and heads down on their knees. Encaged in each figure is a form of a child, facing the other, hands reached out to touch each other. When I showed it to my 8 year old, he looked at it and said, “I get it. And that makes me sad”.
While facilitating a management meeting, a participant talked about an “invisible wall” between departments. People wanted to work more collaboratively, but felt they couldn’t. Like the sculpture “Love”, while employees wanted to connect with each other across boundary, the organization set up to allow it.
One of the most common performance issues organizations face is the barriers that develop between organizational boundaries. This happens most often when change in the organization is occurring. Once barriers develop, problems start. The cross functional processes no longer operate in a coordinated, flexible way. Without intentional efforts to build cross-functional relationships and communication, it becomes easy for employees to fall into isolated thinking. Staffing changes and process changes make it harder to maintain connection to people who have or who can share key information. It doesn’t take more than a couple of missed hand-offs for one department to begin viewing the people in the other department with suspicion. Confidence in their capability is doubted, sometimes even their intent. Once distrust sets in, the organization’s mode of operating quickly changes from shared accountability to localized accountability. It becomes either a “we’ll just take care of it here” or “that’s not my job” attitude.
When a forty-five person management team that was struggling to finish key strategic projects, they decided to focus solely on integrating their systems across departments, positive change started to happen. The group began the effort by describing the unproductive, holding patterns that kept the organization from accomplishing its cross-functional goals. Soon the image of an “invisible wall” between departments was identified. Some explained that employees want to reach out across the invisible wall but are held back by legacy beliefs about policies and regulations. They determined it is better to play it safe and say the cross-functional work can’t be done. Others described insular communication that leads to people not knowing the big picture. The invisible wall became real, a shared reality that everyone felt but had not yet been able to describe.
After the group was able to name the holding pattern, it started to look for ways to dissolve it and build a new supporting pattern. Together, in one room, the cross-functional group of managers began to envision what they would need in place to create coordinated, integrated systems that could address cross-functional challenges. After an hour of working together, they had identified five things they to do to have a structure, processes and skills to work in an integrated manner. After a day, managers were able to see passed the departmental cage and recognize their and their colleagues’ genuine desire to reach across boundary lines in order to provide clients better services and to become a better organization.