The collaboration of the titans

When a cross-functional work group gets started on a special project, the focus should be on results as well as relationships

February 05, 2020 12:35 pm | Updated 12:36 pm IST

What can be worse than a clash between titans? It is: collaboration between them. That explains the unique predicament of any cross-functional work group. It is usually constituted by the creme de la creme in an organisation. Its members are stalwarts in their respective verticals, and they have been cherry-picked for a special collaborative project. In a sense, they can be compared to a task force on a mission.

The challenge is that they have to inhabit a paradoxical space. They have to function like the professional titans that they are so that the project receives the full benefit of their expertise. This means they should be willing to speak their mind, and tear into weak ideas. That should not be a problem for most titans.

And here is the rub: They also have to reduce themselves to Lilliputian insignificance when the situation demands it, so that other perspectives get distilled into the collaborative work. And that is a tough ask for most titans.

Different work styles

In a cross-functional work group, conflict can result from varied perceptions about the same situation. “Take a scenario where someone from the hardcore business side — a sales professional — and someone from the legal or data protection side are grappling with an issue while being engaged in a cross-functional group project. The issue has been laid out on the table clearly, and there shouldn’t be any ambiguity about it. But it doesn’t usually pan out that way: Each will view it differently, brining their unique lens to it. Hardcore business guys are natural risk takers, and they will take decisions with minimal information. For them, a challenge is an opportunity that has to be leveraged and monetised. In contrast, for hardcore legal guys, a challenge is a threat and calls for thorough investigation. They will be cautious in their approach. Usually, in such work groups, participants will have hugely contrasting work styles, and sometimes even communication styles. The task before the work-group facilitator is to ensure they understand each other’s work styles and are not threatened by the difference,” says Vinaya Bansal, workplace behaviour expert.

Anticipate problems

R. Sridhar, an innovation coach, believes preparing a cross-functional group should have the rigour that goes into laying the foundation of a super-edifice. It is time-consuming work, but non-negotiable.

“Before launching into the work, it is necessary to brainstorm together and put down possible areas of conflict. It is like an Army operation, and planning includes expecting and being prepared for an ambush,” says Sridhar.

As a cross-functional team is so unlike a regular team, which has a high degree of interdependance and therefore a natural cohesiveness, an “ambush” can be expected at every turn.

The human side

Cross-functional work groups may be steeped in specialisations, but that would not detract from their human side.

In this context, T.T. Srinath, organisational and behavioural consultant, says that Gestalt may have some answers to human challenges faced by cross-functional work groups.

“Gestalt is rooted in psychology, but is being increasingly used in organisational development, especially in team-building exercises specially aimed at defusing inter-personal conflict. Gestalt is about ‘making whole’, and there is a particular need to make a loosely-structured cross-functional work group, a whole unit. So, before the launch of the project, the group has to be tied together in a uniquely human way; and that brings three dimensions of human dynamics into play. One, the need for the quality of active listening, where listening is born out of curiosity and is geared towards finding answers. Two, empathy, by which there is compassion for self and the other. And three, the quality of positive regard for the other. The exercises should be designed with these three dimensions in mind,” says Srinath.

He points out that the success of a cross-functional collaborative project, or any team-based pursuit for that matter, should be assessed against something like the Blake & Mouton Managerial Grid: “It is marked by ‘x’ and ‘y’ axes, one representing ‘task’ and the other ‘relationship’. There are four quadrants, and the cross-functional collaborative project should land in the ‘high task and high relationship’ quadrant. That alone signifies the true success of such a collaborative project.”

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