Welcome to the Collaboration Revolution

Wholesale collaboration in an organization requires everybody to deal directly with anybody and everybody, every step of the way, even though they don’t report to each other or, for the most part, to each other’s boss.

If you are like most people, you collaborate with lots more people than ever before. Not just those working alongside you, but all over the organization chart—up, down, sideways, and diagonal. It might be a one-time thing out of the blue, or maybe it is every so often. Some become regulars. Many you know only by e-mail. Others you see in meetings or hear their voices on a call.

In addition to your direct boss and immediate teammates, you probably serve a seemingly unlimited number of “internal customers” at work. You are inundated by requests for help from colleagues, many of whom you might not even know. Other times, it’s you who needs to rely on your colleagues, and the tables turn: Suddenly, you’re the internal customer making a request of someone—often someone you cannot easily hold accountable.

But the truth is, you and most of your colleagues do want to be able to depend on each other and deliver for each other. Most everybody wants to be that indispensable go-to person. But nobody can do everything for everybody without succumbing to overcommitment syndrome, which makes it nearly impossible for anybody to consider you truly dependable, much less indispensable.

The process of trying to become indispensable too often means stretching oneself beyond human capacity so that priorities become muddled. Important tasks are left undone or done ineffectively. All of this might leave you wondering when all this collaboration business is going to blow over so you can get back to doing your real job.

I have news for you: This is your real job now. Navigating collaborative relationships is not going away. And doing that job very, very well is how true go-to people, in the real world, win real influence, beat overcommitment, and get the right things done. That’s the art of being—more or less—indispensable at work.

So Many Relationships, So Little Time

While most employees are still organized in siloes, at least on paper, their day-to-day working relationships are all over the organization chart. What I hear—from people at all levels in all sorts of organizations and industries—is that the biggest workplace challenge is collaborating with so many people in so many nebulous relationships. The speed and complexity of work requires so many more interactions with people up, down, sideways, and diagonal that what used to be fairly easy to manage has become very difficult for most mere mortals.

Let’s say you work in sales at a company that makes heavy machinery. Your job isn’t just to convince prospective customers to buy a machine so you can make your sales numbers and please your boss. You are also managing a customer-order specialist to make sure the order gets booked. And maybe you’re dealing with warehouse staff to make sure there’s a machine in the warehouse that’s ready to ship, and you’re talking to a shipping clerk to make sure the machine gets on the truck. Then you have to make sure a service technician will be in place to meet the delivery truck and install the machine.

That’s when things go smoothly. When they don’t—when there are no machines in the warehouse, for example, and after many weeks your customer is still waiting for the delivery— you start talking with Manufacturing to see why inventory isn’t keeping up with demand. Then you need to talk to someone in Accounts Payable to make sure your customer doesn’t get billed until the machine has been installed successfully. Meanwhile, Research and Development wants to talk with you to get your customers’ insights for future product improvements. Service wants to talk with you about promising too much in the warranty package. Accounting needs you to get your expense reports in on time. And IT needs to make a change on your laptop.

In today’s workplace, even when things go well, the number of interactions required up, down, sideways, and diagonal—for what once was a simple transaction—would make anyone’s brain go on tilt. If you’re that heavy-machinery salesperson, you might well ask how you’re supposed to find the time to do your job: selling machines.

That is what’s on everybody’s mind. Everybody at work is your “customer” now. And you are theirs. Up, down, sideways, and diagonal. That’s because collaboration is the latest revolution sweeping across the workplace. It is called by many names, some newfangled:

  • Interdependency
  • Lateral cooperation
  • Self-managed project teams
  • Cross-functional coordination
  • Dotted-line reporting
  • Matrixed management

Of course, collaboration itself is not revolutionary. Collaboration is as old as human civilization. As long as people have been working together, it has always made sense for people on the same team to back each other up and help each other out. When people can draw on each other’s expertise and experience, they tend to come up with smarter, faster, and better solutions together. That was true when ancient humans were hunting gazelles and wildebeest, and it’s been true, for the most part, ever since.

Why Is All this Happening Now?

My client and dear friend, Geoffrey Crouse, puts it this way: “Companies today need to be the best at many things in order to compete and win.” Geoff is a go-to person extraordinaire and CEO of a leading laser company with operations worldwide. He told me recently that things are changing so quickly—customer needs, competitive threats, regulations, trade laws—that it’s a full-time job just to orchestrate coordinated responses that jibe with the company strategy.

That’s why, Geoff says, effective cross-functional collaboration is a must: “Line managers can no longer manage up and down the line and expect the company to win.” Instead, managers have to be accomplished tightrope walkers, managing the traditional line relationships while building alignment across multiple functions. “Sales needs to collaborate with product teams to get the right product to the customer,” he says. “Production needs to collaborate with Quality, Customer Service, and Finance to build the right stuff that addresses customer pain points.”

What Does It All Mean?

What Geoff is describing is wholesale collaboration within the organization, as far down the chain of command as possible. The goal? To speed up and improve information exchange, decision-making, planning, resource sharing, and execution—at every level of the organization—and to reduce unnecessary problems and waste. Such work environments—no longer hypothetical or futuristic, but alive and well—require everybody to deal directly with anybody and everybody, every step of the way, even though they don’t report to each other or, for the most part, to each other’s boss.

Think about corporate departments that provide shared services to every other department. Think of IT: Everybody in every department relies on IT to fix a computer problem, even though IT doesn’t report up to those other departments. Or think of payroll: If you have a problem with your paycheck, you need to get Payroll to work it out for you, even though none of the Payroll people report to you or your boss. Or think of building maintenance: If the toilet is overflowing, who do you call? Or think about Security, Human Resources, Finance, Legal, Shipping, or Receiving.

We Are All in Shared Services Now

Whatever your role, wherever you work—in a restaurant, store, bank, accounting firm, hospital, school, construction site, or battlefield—your job is shared services. And so is just about everybody else’s.

There’s a lot to love about the collaboration revolution. Working in shared services, putting our heads together to work through sticky problems—these things produce richer, more flexible products and services faster.

So why is working this way driving everybody crazy?

You are inundated by more and more requests. You are drowning, more or less, in a cascade of “asks” from internal customers.

Meanwhile, you’re forced to rely more and more on people you cannot hold accountable.

The situation is extremely complex, but the problem for you is simple: How do you and your interdependent colleagues get what you need from each other?

Stay tuned until next month…

Bruce Tulgan is the best-selling author of “It’s Okay to Be the Boss” and the CEO of RainmakerThinking, the management research, consulting, and training firm he founded in 1993. All of his work is based on 27 years of intensive workplace interviews and has been featured in thousands of news stories around the world. His newest book, “The Art of Being Indispensable at Work: Win Influence, Beat Overcommitment, and Get the Right Things Done,” is available for purchase from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and all major booksellers on July 21, 2020, from Harvard Business Review Press. You can follow Bruce on Twitter @BruceTulgan or visit his Website at: rainmakerthinking.com.

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