When Departments Fight, Is It More About the People or the Work?


If interdepartmental disagreements are not part of your daily life, you can skip reading this piece. But I hear about these situations frequently, and two cases of this kind of dispute came my way just recently. One of my clients had a problem with a department that characterized another department as lazy and irresponsible. At another client’s company, two departments trade accusations back and forth about which department messes up more work and should be blamed for customer problems.


Cross-functional conflicts are so common that it helps to have a standard kind of approach for assessing the situation. It’s important to identify whether things are going wrong because people are treating each other badly, or whether some people are merely unskillful about the way they present the real structural problems that they experience with other groups. Here’s a method for figuring it out.


Start from the Broadest Perspective


By zooming out far enough, you can see a situation from different perspectives and get some ideas about what to do. I suggest restating the mission or principles of the organization and starting from the perspective of the business instead of the perspective of the people. You can be more neutral and rigorous by working from this direction before you move on to how people should be behaving or what you expect from them.


Try these basic questions as a quick review of what the organization needs to accomplish to be successful: How do those requirements translate into what has to be done, and who is in the best position, based on role or competencies, to do what?


Answering these questions will help you create a context for conducting a deeper analysis of work processes and the expectations that they create for each department. Begin the assessment within each individual department, rather than in a cross-functional overview, because it’s surprisingly common for employees within the same department to have different expectations or handle tasks in a variety of ways.


Find the True Exceptions and Strengthen Normal Operations


It’s worth it to take the time to identify inconsistencies and clarify them before you interact with the other department. Otherwise, people can feel so confused or frustrated by variations and discrepancies in approach that they may lose confidence in certain individuals, decide the whole department doesn’t know what it’s doing, and develop a general sense of distrust and disdain. You can end up with a situation where the people in Department A think that Department B doesn’t have things nailed down and become resentful: “Why are they always complaining about how we do things? They should clean up their own house first.”


Look carefully for differences between standard operations and exception processing. If a department is dealing with exceptions more than roughly 20 percent of the time, figure out what is making the work so inconsistent. Perhaps procedures were built around old factors that are no longer relevant, so they’re mostly not followed; or maybe processes haven’t yet been adapted to new market or technical realities. Observe your most effective people and see if their approaches or methods can be adapted so that other people can be trained to use them.


Procedural discrepancies often come to light when a group sits together and discusses how they do things and someone volunteers that they don’t do something the way others do. If that happens, examine their reasoning. Maybe they found a useful shortcut, or their customer has a special, unaddressed need. Perhaps they never actually learned to do it the way everyone else does. Or, in some cases, they’re just purely mistaken. Appropriate exceptions typically fall into a few main categories that should be well understood by everyone in the department.


Get Together and Compare Notes


After you’ve done the cleanup work to make your own processes consistent, reliable, and explainable, the next productive step is to meet with the other department – which, if possible, should have undergone the same preparatory review.


When the two groups meet and share how they do things – and why – you may uncover situations where a common procedure that seems basic and straightforward to one department really could be disruptive or confusing to another. If that’s the case, you could need several stages of facilitated discussion to determine the collectively optimal way or to plan a series of experiments to identify the best compromise.


Once a particular approach or method has been verified by both departments, it becomes part of the baseline. When you’ve got agreement and commitment to a formal direction or mutual experiments, the groups can reconvene at an appropriate interval to determine if things are indeed working better.


Resolve Whatever Comes to Light


When we did these examinations at my clients’ companies, we found some challenging issues. In the second case, where two departments each accused the other of messing up more, the source was a deep desire to accommodate customers in ways that created too many exceptions; over time, some of those were standardized or alternatives were developed. But in the first case, where one department perceived the other to be lazy and irresponsible, there were very few procedural issues. Unfortunately, some personal animus had developed over time and had to be dealt with through coaching and counseling individuals about what behaviors were acceptable.


In both cases, though, we couldn’t tease out the underlying causes of hard feelings until the work itself was analyzed and matched to the larger organizational purpose. If you’re aware of any pitched battles in your company, return to the nature and importance of the work to get a good grasp on what’s really happening.

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Author: Liz Kislik


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