As more modern organizations embrace DevOps and adjacent movements (such as Agile, Lean, and Design Thinking), there are stronger calls than ever before for cross-functional, customer-first collaboration. But these calls often devolve into arguments about frameworks and methodologies, rather than agreements about shared principles and practices. In truth, the key to meaningful cross-functional collaboration is often not a matter of adding more frameworks, processes, or tools–but rather of imposing simple, common-sense constraints to force us to actually talk to each other and work together across our functions and silos.
Too Much of a Good Thing
In many organizations, the question of “how do we work together across functions?” is answered with multiple, competing ideas that often originate from within particular silos or functions. Product managers might be more familiar with Agile and Lean, and advocate for the methods and principles with which they are most familiar. Designers might see Design Thinking as a way to elevate design’s strategic positioning. And engineers might approach DevOps as a way to extend transparency and accountability beyond technical teams. The bottom line is that, by and large, these movements are rooted in a highly complementary set of values. If we truly want to collaborate across functions, we must give up the idea that there is only one right way to do so, and that our particular function is the keeper of that one right way.
True Collaboration vs. Collaboration Theater
So, what is the difference between true cross-functional collaboration and the “collaboration theater” that distracts and diminishes many cross-functional teams? It’s actually pretty simple: true collaboration is subtractive, whereas collaboration theater is additive. In other words, true collaboration means making decisions together–choosing one thing from many, removing processes that are not serving our needs, focusing our time and attention on the things that truly matter. Collaboration theater often involves adding more things–more options, more choices, more artifacts and documents that we can litigate and fuss over to avoid making the critical decisions that truly impact our business and our customers.
Simple Constraints for Complex Work
How do we avoid slipping into collaboration theater? In many cases, the simplest step we can take is also the most important: imposing basic constraints on the work we do together. This means, for example, scheduling time-boxed half-hour conversations to make important decisions rather than trading back and forth in long descriptive emails. It means asking our cross-functional colleagues what they need from us directly, rather than making assumptions and then building those assumptions into our own processes. Most of all, it means resisting the urge to insist that “our way”–whatever that way might be–is the only way or the best way. A subtractive approach to collaboration means that we can take simple, deliberately scoped steps to improve the way we work together, rather than piling new ways of working on top of each other.