Pamela, the chief executive officer of a medium-sized software company, was talking with Tom, her chief technology officer, about a book she had just finished reading. “And so that got me thinking about how we are all interrelated in ways we don’t recognize,” she finished up.
“How do you mean?” Tom queried. “That Marketing, Sales, and Engineering all affect each other?”
“Everyone recognizes those surface effects. And it’s obvious how Finance affects each of those groups by imposing budgets, and so on. But there’s all these hidden interrelations, too. And those effects have got to be affecting our interactions in ways we don’t understand.”
Tom scratched his head in apparent puzzlement. “I don’t get it. Examples, please.”
“I have several for you.”
You always have other options
“I’ll start with Finance,” Pamela said. “Everyone recognizes the constraints their budgets impose on them, as I said. And everyone knows those budgets are both a blessing and a curse: a blessing because it gives them boundaries of freedom for purchasing supplies, services, work from employees and contractors, etcetera; a curse because budgets are never big enough for everything we want to do.”
Tom nodded his head. “Okay, I follow so far.”
“What I’ve never seen people acknowledge is the effect we feel from the way Finance communicates those budgets and the processes we use for determining them.”
Tom looked at Pamela quizzically. “You’ve lost me. You decide how much of our revenue to plow back into our next year’s budget. Finance then parcels that out to each department according to what they say they need. That’s never enough, as you said, so everyone argues about it until we agree. Or you get fed up and decide who gets what.”
“Yes, exactly. It’s a zero-sum game. Each group argues why their plans are so much more important than every other group’s and so deserve to be given all the money. Everyone is against everyone else. This is the opposite of the collaboration we say we value.”
“How else could we do it?” Tom asked.
“We could give everyone an equal amount. We could decide as a team what project is most important, work together to budget that, and then do the same with whatever is next most important, and next most important, and next most important, until we run out of money. We could prioritize helping everyone else succeed, and act to make that happen. We could stop pushing our own agenda and instead promote someone else’s. We could let individual directors work with other directors to develop a budget directly at their level.”
“Well, I foresee lots of potential problems with each of those,” Tom said slowly. “And, I get your point. The way we approach budgeting today isn’t our only option. We can certainly make it a process that puts collaboration first.”
You always have something to celebrate
“So, that’s one example,” Pamela continued. “A second is how Marketing, Sales, and Engineering relate. Engineering grumbles that Sales always promises customers functionality without first checking with Engineering on feasibility and timelines. Marketing complains that Engineering never meets the dates Engineering promises. So, Marketing has to spend time, money, and goodwill rescheduling and rearranging. Sales complains that our marketing campaigns don’t reflect what customers actually care about and that our software has key bugs that never get fixed despite blocking deals with customers.”
“Yeah, that’s how it always is,” Tom agreed.
“But that’s not the whole story. It’s not even a large part of the story. Engineering constantly collaborates with Sales, sending developers out to debug customer issues and helping Sales build proof of concepts demonstrating how we can integrate with customers’ systems. Marketing does loads of customer research that they hand over to Engineering to help with feature prioritization and design. Engineering reviews marketing material and campaigns for technical accuracy. I constantly hear how everyone helps everyone else out.”
“I know we go on sales calls a lot,” Tom said. “And I remember one time a newly hired tester caught a big goof in a marketing campaign the day before it went live. I didn’t know how deeply we were collaborating, though. Certainly, these things aren’t celebrated or even mentioned very often, at least that I’m aware of.”
“Exactly,” Pamela exclaimed. “All we ever focus on is the grumpiness. That has got to be affecting the way we interact with each other. The way we feel about each other. The expectations we have of each other.”
“You’re right,” Tom said thoughtfully. “This must be influencing our work together.”
Someone else is always feeling the same as you
“Third, I don’t know what is in the water, but you and everyone else on my executive team are expecting a baby this spring.”
“We’ve all been laughing about that,” Tom said. “My wife blames the executive retreat last year.”
“Well, maybe bringing spouses along wasn’t such a smart idea after all,” Pamela grinned. “But, let me ask you a question: Are you concerned that the company will fall apart while you are all out on parental leave?”
“I guess?” Tom thought for a moment, then said softly, “Yeah.”
“And are you also worried that the company won’t fall apart, and so you’ll be out of a job because we must not need you after all?”
“Yes,” Tom said even more softly. “How did you know?”
“Because it’s not just you. It’s every single person on my team. You’ve all been acting squirrely lately. I’ve had to apply everything I learned from raising three teenagers to get this out of you all.”
Tom sat back in surprise.
“So, why haven’t any of you felt comfortable talking with me about this?” Pamela queried. “Why don’t you feel comfortable talking about this with each other? I thought we trusted each other. What else aren’t we bringing up? What else are we afraid to say?”
“That’s a pretty scary thought,” Tom said, rubbing his chin contemplatively.
Who you are is a competitive advantage
“These are all pretty scary, in fact,” Tom said a moment later. “I believe you’re right: all these hidden undercurrents have got to be affecting how way we work together. How do we make all this visible?”
“I’ve been talking with my coach about that,” Pam said. “First, I’m making space at the beginning of every meeting for each person in the meeting to talk about what’s going on for them right then. Whatever they want to say. No feedback from the rest of us.”
“A safe space. I like it.”
“Then, I’m going to bring in a facilitator my coach recommended to take us through a series of workshops to help make all this invisible stuff visible. We must be able to perceive and discuss these hidden influences before we can remove their impact on us. I don’t want them holding us back any longer.”
“Are you saying we’re going to have to participate in a lot of squishy people stuff?” Tom asked guardedly.
“I knew you were going to ask that,” Pam said with a smile. “Let me ask you a question in return: Do you want to feel comfortable bringing everything you are into work?”
“Yes,” Tom said decisively, surprising himself at his certainty.
“Well, great. Because that’s what I want for you and everyone else as well. These workshops will help with that. Our competition won’t know what hit them.”
“My family won’t know what hit them,” Tom laughed.
“Oh, don’t worry. We’re going to include them as well,” Pamela said with a grin of her own. “If I want your whole self here at work, I have to help you be that at home, too.”