More companies are asking employees from different departments to collaborate on projects. But dragging people out of their silos isn’t easy.
How do you get aggressive, fast-talking salespeople to cooperate with reserved, detail-oriented engineers? Or intuitive creative types to sync with budget-minded planners?
Playing well with others is essential to advancing one’s career, but often requires new skills. Collaborators must adapt to others’ ways of working, cede the spotlight to the team rather than hogging it, and speak up when they disagree with colleagues—even when they’re afraid of angering others or looking stupid.
For companies, having employees labor in isolation can be costly. Silos have been blamed for past setbacks at Microsoft, Sony Corp. and Swiss financial giant UBS AG. Research by anthropologist Elizabeth Briody, founder of Cultural Keys, a Troy, Mich., consulting firm, has found silos can prevent companies from providing good service or making products customers say they want.
Employers in most industries are trying to foster employee collaboration across departments to help them react more rapidly to changes in their markets, says
chief research officer at the Institute for Corporate Productivity, a Seattle human-capital research firm. Teaming employees with diverse backgrounds also tends to produce better ideas and decisions, he says. But a 2017 study of 1,100 employers found only about one in four uses incentives to motivate workers to collaborate well, Mr. Martin says.
Employees at the Starr Conspiracy, a Fort Worth, Texas, ad agency, have been collaborating closely on projects for four years. Walk by a glass-walled conference room there, says chief executive Bret Starr, and “you’ll see people you’d never see sitting together at Starbucks”— artists, marketers, data analysts and engineers.
Starr brought in a consultant who trained managers to create self-directed employee teams responsible for coordinating their own work on client projects. Teams meet face-to-face with managers daily to give status reports and ask for help or support. In the past, individual employees were interrupted many times a day by different managers with questions about various projects, including some they weren’t prepared to discuss at the time, giving rise to stress and delays.
The consultant also trained Starr’s 65 employees to understand each other’s communication and learning styles. But it isn’t easy. The agency’s top sales executive, Mark Mitchell, “is the fastest talker. He will get out everything you need to know in 60 seconds—but nobody can process everything you need to know in 60 seconds,” says Jonathan Goodman, head of Starr’s strategy and consulting group.
When Mr. Mitchell, an agency partner and co-owner, was asked to listen and answer colleagues’ questions rather than leading off meetings with presentations, “I literally had to sit on my hands and take sips of water to keep myself from talking,” he says. “I’d just as soon have my fingernails peeled back.”
Engineer Michael Mercer is slower to speak. When listening in meetings, “I like to dwell on” what is being said and digest it, says Mr. Mercer, the agency’s director of web technology. He then doodles or draws to frame what he has learned. Mr. Goodman says Mr. Mercer appears inscrutable. “I couldn’t pretend to know the things Michael is thinking about” as he listens silently in meetings, he says. Mr. Mercer says it’s all good: He prefers working on a diverse team to “being locked in a room doing one task.”
There’s no hiding one’s foibles. Jonathan Irwin, an art director, “has a brilliant mind but he can’t spell,” Mr. Goodman says. Colleagues ask him to copy and paste others’ edited text into his designs. Mr. Irwin admits spelling isn’t his forte. “I think phonetically and people laugh,” he says, but he doesn’t let it bother him. When “I get to a word I can’t spell” when writing on a whiteboard in a meeting, he says, “I just scribble so it’s illegible.”
A hard truth about collaboration is that no team can move faster than the slowest member. Nancy Crabb, also an art director, says she works best with a deadline, “but for other people, deadlines really stress them out.” Stretching work over several days to accommodate others takes patience, she says.
Still, Starr employees say their projects and designs have grown more innovative and broader in scope thanks in part to better cooperation. One product of collaboration is an interactive online template for content that was created by an engineer, a writer and an art director at the agency. The template is an alternative to the PDF formatwidely used for informational white papers. Ms. Crabb, who worked on the project, says, “Working across so many disciplines at once, we’re able to tackle problems that I never would have tried” in the past.
The learning curve on successful collaboration often is steep. Employees have to set aside the desire to be the person who is right in every discussion, and focus on helping the team find the right answer, says
author of “The Career Manifesto,” a coming book sparked by a blog he wrote as an executive at Alphabet Inc.’s Google. They also must stop worrying about angering others and “engage in the productive conflict, the listening and debating, that help you get to the right answer,” says Mr. Steib, CEO of New York technology and media concern
Two senior XO Group executives,
disagree openly in front of members of their teams—and encourage employees to do the same. One high-profile battle took place this year before about 20 employees from both of their teams. At issue were plans by XO’s The Knot wedding-planning site to relaunch the site and a new version of its wedding-planning app.
Ms. Sivajee, executive vice president, marketing and editorial, wanted to launch the app with a splash and promote four or five new features. Mr. Tworetzky, an engineer and executive vice president, product, hedged at committing to more than two new features, saying, “I’d rather build fewer things of higher quality,” he says. “It was a great debate.”
They compromised by launching the app with two new features—a personalized planning timeline and a style quiz—and agreed on priorities for adding more features. The app rolled out on schedule, earlier this month, and XO Group says downloads are running about 30% higher than the previous year.
Write to Sue Shellenbarger at email@example.com