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How Early Engagement Can Help Improve Cross-Team Communication

Cross-functional collaboration
Collaboration

31 August, 2020

Shelly Bezanson, Director of Release at Thoughtexchange, discusses how early engagement through the Product Council coupled with a set of six key principles can help improve communication between different teams.

Problem

We were working on a particular feature and were following a precise plan on how we were going to implement and release it. Recently, and not for the first time, we had to go back and forth between our developers and our customer success team. We already twice approached our developers -- who sometimes lacked a deep understanding of the business side or impact on users -- and moved in and out two different pieces of software. Then, we went back to our customer success team and they told us we were missing a piece that was a deal-breaker.
 

We had to go back to our development team and for the second time asked them to undo a change. It was an uncomfortable and wearying situation and we as leaders had to articulate why we were doing all of this and how something that important for the business we had missed. These two groups had different motivations and objectives and we had to find a way to build a bridge of communication between them.
 

Actions taken

None of this would happen if we had a proper structure in place that would enable early engagement of all stakeholders and ensure that their -- often divergent -- opinions were heard and included. Therefore, we decide to establish the Product Council, an advisory body, that ensures different representations from all the teams to discuss proposals in their nascent phase. We would present our plans to the Council in full detail and would initiate an informed discussion. A very diverse group with its own different incentives would naturally produce very different inputs. The Council would help us enhance communication around how we would go about releasing features, but also help us prioritize our activities.

In the past, we would prioritize what we would put into release in a contextual vacuum. Engaging stakeholders earlier generated a complete and comprehensive context that proved to be critical in decision making.
 

Besides having a structure in place I would adhere to six key principles to ensure smooth communication and alignment between different teams in situations like the one above:
 

Be very clear on Why. I explained the situation in the most sincere terms. I clarified how we missed something important to the business, but also explained how we didn’t know it was big enough to be a showstopper.
 

Exercise empathy and understanding. I would make sure to listen to everyone and try to understand their concerns. I would genuinely empathize with people worrying about vague requirements or shifting priorities, and try to understand their actions from their perspective.
 

Owning responsibility. I made sure that everyone understood that we made a mistake and I explained how we ended up being entangled in that situation. It was on us, not on them.
 

Acknowledge the frustration. Frustration can often be a result of hard work that yields no result. We had to understand that developers put strenuous effort to undo re-introduced changes and were frustrated because of it. But, don’t dwell on frustration, move past it.
 

Establish a common ground. Common ground or a purpose that connects people at different departments is the strongest unifying factor. I would gather people around a common goal that we, as a company, have -- we want our users to be happy with our software.
 

Moving into solution. We make mistakes, we fix things, we move along. There is a time to talk, and more importantly to listen; and there is a time to act.
 

Lessons learned

  • There is no such thing as overcommunication. Repeating consistently what needs to be said will do no harm. On the contrary, not communicating well enough can have detrimental consequences.
  • Lead with Why. Why unifies different groups with different goals. If you can clearly state how something can drive the business forward everyone will get behind that and get on board. Why serves a dual purpose -- to reach an agreement across different teams and secure their support. It also disclosed the deeper purpose that is oftentimes hidden and habitualized.
  • Early engagement of different stakeholders that ensures diverse representation is critical. Trying to suddenly undo a change right before release is both expensive and difficult.

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