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What to do when another department is screwing up. September 25, 2012

Posted by thefieldgeneral in Leadership, Project Management.

In business we often work in silos. When a businesses is segmented like this, it can make it very difficult to resolve problems. What do you do when you have a problem with another department?

Thanks to Vic @http://www.flickr.com/people/59632563@N04/

When problems crop up between business units the temptation is to shoot off an angry, frustrated email explaining your position. Don’t! This is almost always the wrong solution no matter how strongly you feel that your team is in the right. In these cases I have found that there are 3 basic steps that will provide you maximum control of the situation.

1. Assume responsibility for what you can
One of the standard fallouts from interdepartmental problems is “finger pointing”.  A key piece of information here is that often the accusations flying back at you are true. The other department probably has as many problems with what you are doing as you do with them. You need to beat them to the punch. Look at your own operations. Where have your failures made the problem worse? Identify them, document them, and own them. If you find that you have no problems, look harder. You missed something.

In one project a team of mine was having issues with the technical team correctly carrying out their requests. After they complained to me about it, I asked the lead of my team to look at the requests themselves. We found that they were often poorly written and unclear. They were also frequently submitted later than ideal. Understanding this led us to the conclusion that there was a lot we could do to alleviate the issues.

2. Change what you control

The thing that you as a manager need to remember is that you are not a victim. In most cases you can either resolve or mitigate the problem internally. Take mitigation steps. This provides you 2 major advantages. First, you can execute the internal changes more rapidly with less resistance. Second, if the problem escalates, you can show clear intent and action to address the issue.

Once, while doing a series of system implementations, we found that an internet banking group we were working with was consistently miss-configuring their side of the system. We reacted by adding a preemptive quality evaluation to the configuration. We added a double check of our requests to make sure our communication was clean. Then we wrote a document with the step by step implementation steps. It was their problem, but we were the ones dealing with the fall out.

3. How to change what you can’t personally change.
If you’ve identified your issues and implemented your solutions, but you still are having significant problems, it may be time to change the other department. Remember, this is only if you are still having significant issues. Every time you go out to change another group you are taking on significant risks.  If you upset or anger the other department with your meddling, you may end up with even bigger problems. The conflict could spread to an even wider group of departments. Managers talk, and your issue with a department of a business group could spread to the whole group. Beyond the risk, also keep in mind that you are spending personal political collateral to make the change. If you push a minor change now, you may not have the political strength to get a major change pushed through later.

If you are determined to proceed do this:

  • Carefully document the ongoing instances of the problem. The needs are different based on severity, but you need to be able to show that the issue has happened over time (I’d say a month or two in most cases) and is not a fluke (at least 3-4 cases or 10% of cases)
  • Setup a personal meeting with the manager of the other department
  • Outline the issue, what you have identified as issues on your side,and what you have done to mitigate these issues
  • Outline the evidence showing that this is an ongoing problem, and not just a fluke
  • Ask for the managers help in solving the problem. Do not suggest a solution unless they ask you for suggestions. They are the experts in their field and you will be surprised how often they will offer something better than you expected.
  • If they refuse to help, let them know (nicely) that you will need to escalate the issue. Inform your boss of the intent to escalate and repeat the above procedure with the other department’s boss. A lot of managers hate escalations, but it’s hard to get angry at you if you’ve given them plenty of opportunity to act and given them a heads-up.
  • Finally, whether they help or not, the other manager may have additional mitigations or issues for you. You don’t need to address them at the moment, but you do need to address them. This shows that you are willing to act on the other department’s behalf, which builds you significant political capital.

This may sound like a lot, but it keeps relations between the teams good. More importantly it works. Most of this process can be used for interpersonal conflicts as well.

Have you tried any of these techniques to deal with interpersonal or interdepartmental conflicts in the past?

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