Originally posted on SA Partners by Kevin Eyre

Put your lean know-how to the test in this continuous improvement dilemma.

We think we have a collaborative culture at our business. Ours is a professional environment in which people behave constructively towards one another. We pride ourselves on encouraging a positive workplace atmosphere in which new ideas are welcomed and considered seriously without fear or favour. Of course, no business has a complete absence of ‘politics’, but I would say that ours comes pretty close.

We’ve had real success with much of our business improvement activity, but we do notice a variation in success when it comes to cross-functional working which, unsurprisingly, is an area of increasing importance to us.

In fact, we’ve tried to understand what it is that makes the difference between crossfunctional projects that work really well and the others that don’t. The results of our survey into this area have proved inconclusive. All of our projects are well structured, with good terms of reference and clear accountabilities which are well specified.

Project leaders receive good and effective training in project management and we invest in helping team members to respect each others’ differing contributions as they result from differences in personal style or psychology. The one theme which does emerge as something that requires more attention, however, is communication. We’ve spoken to the teams that most cited communication as
needing a bit more attention, but, ironically, they find it difficult to be terribly specific about what the problem is.

It just seems that some teams find communication to be more open and more purposeful, but we’re not quite sure what people mean by this or how to ‘copy and paste’ it into other areas of the business. There may not be what could be described as ‘a failure to communicate’, but is there something that we’re missing?

Kevin Eyre of SA Partners gives the expert view.

It’s doubtful that you are missing anything obvious, but it may be that there are some hidden subtleties in the way that communication impacts on collaboration. Let me try to make you aware of them. Cross-functional working requires highly sophisticated types of interaction – a range of styles to deal with the different perspectives that different people have, excellent listening skills to master those differences and an appreciation that when it comes to communication, there is often a difference between what we intend and the impact that we actually have.

This is, in fact, very common. Many managers intend to ask lots of questions of their people and believe that they do so. Ask most subordinates however, how inquiring their managers are and they will often tell you, “not very”.

So, collaboration; the first point is this; that collaboration results from the interaction of two types of talk, or voices – inquiry and articulation. In complex situations I really need to understand what’s going on and so asking lots of (especially open) questions provides me with a rich perspective on the context of what’s happening. (This is a bit similar to the problem
identification phase in classic ‘problem solving’ – the broader my investigation, the more possible ideas I capture.)

It also leads others to conclude that I’m interested in them and that I’m listening to what they’re saying. Combining that inquiry with a voice that summarises what’s been said while simultaneously inviting others to comment, the voice of articulation, engenders confidence because it keeps the discussion open. Iterating between inquiry and articulation before decisions are taken builds collaboration. It shows respect and builds confidence. Is this what your project leaders are doing?

Here’s a check. Many people believe that their communication creates collaboration, but rather than shifting between the ‘twin peaks’ of inquiry and articulation, they narrow the gauge and strike a more directional tone. There may be questions, but they will be more solutioncentred; “don’t you think we should go for option B?” There may be an attempt at summarising, but it will sound more like:” I’ve heard that option B is the one to go for”.

This is a ‘twin crevice’. It offers lots of communication, but only if others are confident enough to counter-argue.

At a narrower level still (and this might be regarded as a ‘twin base camp’), the voice is more judging and more challenging; “There’s really only one worthy option and that’s B” while the open nature of articulation gives way to the encouragement to shoot for something grand; “ Option B would be tough, but we need to stretch ourselves”. Most of these styles are performed as habits rather than as consciously shaped conversations. Performing them as the latter is possible and takes practice.

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