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Lessons in Snag Prevention

Lessons in Snag Prevention

Even when it seems otherwise, most people would really prefer to get along. In these examples and many others that I've witnessed, good things have happened to people who have taken the time to talk

Does your department ever run into snags in working with other IT or customer groups? OK, silly question. The real question is, how to you resolve these snags? And what can you do to prevent them in the first place? In my experience, talking to each other and gaining an understanding of the other group's perspective is an ideal place to start. Consider these three examples:

Organization No. 1

The relationship between IT and one of its customer divisions was aggressively adversarial. The two groups were located a thousand miles from each other, and each saw the other as being responsible for a lengthy string of snafus. I'd been invited to help IT establish a service-level agreement with this business unit, but everyone I met in both IT and the business unit doubted they could ever reach agreement — about anything. Their disdain for each other was blatant.

I scheduled the kickoff meeting for the SLA team and sent out an agenda. My hidden agenda, though, was simply to have these IT and business unit people spend time together, face-to-face, away from their everyday squabbles. The meeting started off somber, serious and SLA-focused. But gradually, the conversation began to intermittently detour to nonwork topics — their kids, the cost of petrol, the fumble in last night's game — a sign that they were starting to relate as human beings rather than as fuming, frustrated finger-pointers.

Amazing though it may seem, before long, they were bantering, joking and (unimaginably!) laughing together. This levity marked a transition: Adversaries who laugh together don't remain adversaries for long. This kickoff meeting certainly didn't eliminate the challenges of negotiating the SLA. But it set the stage for a cooperative effort that led, in time, to a successful agreement and a significant improvement in service quality.

Organization No. 2

Following a massive reorganization (you know the kind!), the manager of one IT department astutely decided to hold a session for her staffers and the business units that had become their customers. The objective of the meeting, which I was invited to facilitate, was to help the IT and customer personnel build a foundation for their working relationship.

I designed the first half of the session with activities and discussions that enabled them to compare ideas, tackle lighthearted problems and laugh together. In the process, they began to know one another separately from their responsibilities and priorities.

The second half of the session focused on fostering a deeper level of communication and an appreciation of one another's pressures and priorities. Frank discussions about what was important to each group about working with the other enabled each to gain insight into the other's challenges, uncertainties and concerns. The two groups made significant strides in building a foundation of trust and respect. A year later, the manager reported that the foundation remained strong.

Organization No. 3

An IT director called me and with evident concern described four IT groups whose personnel were, as he put it, about to strangle one another. The groups needed to interact to support their customers, but they were hip-deep in conflict, each viewing the other three as incompetent and indifferent.

When the four groups assembled in an off-site meeting room, it quickly became obvious that although they worked on different aspects of the same customer requests, most had never met. Most, in fact, had never even talked with one another, except when thrashing through problems that each saw as the fault of the others.

I divided them into small groups comprising people from each department and assigned discussion topics that focused on their customers' concerns rather than on their own. To their surprise, they found that they had a lot in common, not least of which was that they all really wanted to do a good job for their customers. They discovered false assumptions they'd made about one another's roles and constraints and discovered that some of their most frustrating snags in working together had simple solutions.

For their closing activity, I invited them to discuss the next steps for their relationships. Their conclusion: Now that they'd started talking, they wanted to continue to communicate back on the job, and they identified several options for doing so. This brief session didn't transform a battleground into a hug-athon, but it marked the start of mutually supportive relationships.

The moral to these stories: Even when it seems otherwise, most people would really prefer to get along. In these examples and many others that I've witnessed, good things have happened to people who have taken the time to talk.

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