Operating Across Organizations

by Randall L. Englund

When several organizations are involved in a project, unique challenges arise for the project manager and team members, especially the need to influence without authority across functional areas, businesses, and geography. Geographical location and organizational boundaries affect the dynamics of any project, offering opportunities as well as challenges. The behavioral process described below evolved over years of experience, study, and teaching. Greater success comes not by doing pieces, but to the extent you apply all steps in the process.

Figure 1: Iterative steps in a behavioral process for operating across organizations.

Prepare for Relationship-Building

Proactive leaders recognize that people make things happen, and getting to know their needs is vital to changing their behavior. Success in a cross-organizational project requires extra effort to develop relationships-first to get support from key people and then to get commitment to the project from each team member.

Starting with the premise that people generally have some choice regarding what project they work on, continually ask yourself, "How can I get people to work with me on this project?" The answers vary by individual. Make the effort to determine the answer to this question for each individual you want to work on your project. If you are able to answer the question, you gain a competitive advantage in attracting these individuals and eliciting their active involvement and cooperation on the project.

The initial step in preparing to build relationships is to understand why the project is cross-organizational and why specific partners need to be involved. This understanding enables you to explain the project better to others when seeking their support.

Clarify the project mission (what problems are we solving?) and develop a personal vision for a future state that is different from-and better than-the status quo or current reality. Acknowledge problems and paint a picture of something better. Your vision becomes your energy source, turning your passion into contagious energy. Present your vision in concrete terms, inspiring others to participate in making it a reality. Develop the ability to describe your project in a concise, clear, and compelling way, and you will have potential team members clamoring to get involved and help achieve the goals.

Identify all those who will be stakeholders in your project. Recognize the influential players in each organization-those who have position power or control resources. Also identify those who are perceptive, articulate, competent, and socially adept. Network with these stakeholders in accordance with the Law of Reciprocity: people expect a return (now or in the future) for what they give.

When traveling to other organizations involved in your project, go out of your way to reap the synergy and productivity that come from direct contact. Make a real effort to understand cultural differences (functional, organizational, or international), recognizing that people's actions, priorities, perceptions, and style are highly dependent on cultural values. Diversity is both the greatest asset and the most challenging liability of cross-organizational teamwork.

Establish Relationships

Establish relationships with cross-organizational partners as early in the project process as possible. Find or develop a project sponsor. Turn stakeholders and influential people into supporters by contacting each of them directly, describing opportunities and sharing information about the project. Solicit their suggestions. Write down their concerns and respond to them directly. Follow through on promised actions. Get explicit commitments from everyone involved with the project. Keep communications flowing with regard to those commitments.

Assume that each person who needs to be influenced is a potential ally. Determine their goals, needs, and style. Imagine yourself in their position. Many interpersonal "currencies" can be exchanged based on people's needs, such as exposure to new technology, information, response time, recognition, gratitude, or resources. Diagnose your relationships and plan an approach tailored to address each person's concerns.

Get all participants together face-to-face at the beginning of the project. Use team-building exercises to develop relationships and trust. Share your reasons for undertaking the cross-organizational project and allow participants to express their concerns. This enables them to accept others and validate each other's role. Recognize differences and seek consensus on values. A shared vision is the "intellectual cohesion" that keeps cross-organizational partners working together.

Align priorities and establish a decision priority list based on the relative importance of schedule, scope, and resources. Define a process for raising and resolving issues quickly. Empower decision-making at the lowest reasonable level. Make sure everyone is aware of and understands the process. Document your assumptions. Set up a change management process that not only helps sustain decisions and foster stability, but also permits flexibility.

Fuzzy goals become even fuzzier over distance. Document specific goals that are clear, visible, and understood by everyone. Structure work so that teams operate separately but in unison. Get conspicuous buy-in to ensure accountability and results.

Maintain Relationships

Weak relationships are a prime cause of failure in cross-organizational projects. Recognize that trust is the foundation for effective teamwork. Maintain an open environment and express genuine interest in other team members and what is happening in their organizations. Be visible, approachable, positive, and supportive. Avoid favoritism. Regularly assess morale and relationships through two-way communications. Add a personal touch to communications. Maintain integrity in all your dealings.

Good plans, especially current and realistic schedules, help reduce conflicts. Strong communications are key. Focus on common objectives. Make decisions fairly and objectively.

Be a leader who facilitates communications. Meet regularly with teams and individuals (rotating the site) to keep focused and track progress. Manage meetings effectively. Publish decisions and action items. Keep objectives visible in summary reports and distribute them widely. Make sure that all sites receive updated project documents or use a web-based information system. Remote team members thrive on information about the project-and need that connection with the team. Even though travel budgets may be tight, there is no substitute for meeting face-to-face periodically, whether to prevent or resolve major differences or to celebrate project successes.

Adapt to Changes

It is critical to respond quickly to changes or variances. Reinforce teamwork by training new people together with those who need a refresher. Conduct just-in-time training when new challenges arise.

A good management practice is to adopt successful informal practices into regular practices. Be sensitive to the ebb and flow of group dynamics: back off when the natural energy of the team is at work, but push back when team members go off on a tangent. Being flexible and adapting to situations as they arise will pay off; once decisions are made, you may exercise more influence and achieve greater success than you would have by trying to force team members into your way of thinking.

Involve the entire team and make corrections based on project reviews. Capture information from team members leaving the project. Document their expertise and processes to ensure smooth transitions.

Upon completion of the project, conduct similar celebrations at each remote site. When relationships change, express appreciation for the opportunity to work together toward a common goal and for the cooperation displayed during the project. Reach a clean closure on each project and each relationship. Try not to burn any bridges.

Convince Team Members

Organizations are political. A commitment to positive policies is essential to creating a healthy, functional organization. Create relationships that are win-win, keep intentions out in the open, and establish trust that will serve as a solid foundation for ethical transactions. True influence comes from forming and communicating clear, convincing, and compelling arguments.

So how do you get people to want to work for you? Show them that the experience will be stimulating, they will have more fun, you will help them more than others will, they will get constructive feedback, they will be excited by the vision, they will learn more from you and the project, their professional needs will be met, they will travel and meet interesting people, it will be good for their careers, together we'll accomplish more than we could separately. . . . Convince them! And keep at it over and over again.

Randy Englund is co-author of Creating an Environment for Successful Projects (Jossey-Bass, 2004) and Creating the Project Office (2003). He learned most of his lessons as a project manager at Hewlett-Packard and General Electric. He now provides coaching to executives and management teams about their project management culture. He can be reached at englundr@pacbell.net and on the web at www.englundpmc.com.

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