Working Across Departments

In any organization, working across departments comes with a lot of interesting challenges. Below, find a guide to navigating some common challenges in cross-department collaboration.

Seniority Gaps

As an organization gets larger, team members more often engage with cross-departmental counterparts of meaningfully different. Gone are the early startup days, when you might find a company that almost no diversity in years-of-experience and a shallow org-chart. You start to more often see situations like:

  • A VP with 20 years of experience paired with a recruiter with 5 years of experience, both trying to help build out the team.
  • A Sales Executive with 25 years of experience partnering with a PM with 6 years of experience, both trying to help close a critical deal.
  • A C-suite member, working with an HR team member who has 8 years of experience, partnering together to manage a crisis within a team.
  • Cross-functional teams, with PMs and Designers and Engineers and Engineering Managers, ranging from college-hires to people with 20+ years of experience.

Indeed, companies with over 200 employees are filled with things that are worked on by people that vary in seniority, compensation, experience, and skill. When things work, it’s fun and it’s great. And when they don’t, it can often be a total disaster.

As a rule, you shouldn’t argue with a different-department teammate, especially if there’s a seniority gap. Disagreements are fine, but anything that even starts to resemble a feud or multi-day argument is really problematic.

For example:

  • Imagine the VP and the recruiter have differing opinions on how to close a candidate, including compensation decisions.
  • Imagine the Sales Exec wants the PM to advertise features that aren’t ready yet.
  • Imagine the C-suite member gets frustrated with the documentation requirements coming from the HR team member.
  • Imagine that on the team the Engineers think a PM is bad, and the PM thinks the Engineers are lazy, and the designer is caught in the middle.

All of these are things that can 100% happen. Friction points exist. However, the critical step is to absolutely not jump into a lengthy debate or battle.

In general, arguments across seniority levels drag the most senior person down and are risky for the more junior person.

Across departments, however, issues are even worse, because the lack of shared reporting chain and difference in vocations create special recipes for failure. The more senior person thinks, I’m more senior and this person isn’t respecting my opinion. The more junior person thinks, This jerk thinks that just because they’re more senior, they know more about my job than I do.

Both people have incentives that don’t necessarily dissuade them from argument . For example, in a senior person’s reporting chain, they have to deal with the messes they create. In a junior person’s reporting chain, they’re arguing with someone that directly decides their comp and promotions.

If you’re having challenges with someone in a different department at a different seniority level, get people at the same level in those reporting chains to figure it out. If you’re very senior, that often means searching out your peer in that department.

This example highlights the two main issues with cross-department arguments: 1) there are big context gaps and 2) there aren’t shared accountability mechanisms.

Incentive Structures

Another place where cross-department collaboration runs into issues is with differing incentive structures. Many go-to-market teams are incentivized on quarterly cadences and on very direct business outcomes. Many product and engineering teams are incentivized on further upstream metrics and signals, like adoption or engagement.

Company-wide OKRs are meant to solve this, but they don’t, really. Ultimately, when the rubber hits the road, everything takes a back seat to the incentive structure.

This is not good or bad, it’s just reality.

Practically, this translates into some common, expected outcomes:

  • Sales / Customer Success / Support teams that ask for short term work on behalf of clients, potentially to the detriment of long-term success.
  • Product and engineering teams push against short-term asks, potentially to the detriment of short (and long)-term success.
  • Teams with longer incentive structures often lose priority to teams with shorter incentive structures, both in the work they end up doing and in the work they ask for.
  • Marketing teams might want everyone to commit to and orient around a few large, monolithic announcements per year, potentially to the detriment of product team agility. Product teams may fight deadlines, potentially to the detriment of downstream functions.
  • Recruiting teams ask to close more candidates, potentially risking quality. Hiring managers pushing in the other direction.

So, what do you do about this?

There’s no perfect answer, but some things to consider:

  • Where possible, make the problem smaller by doing a re-org, bringing cross-functional stakeholders close-together in a single group. Smaller groups can deal with the nuance of cross-department collaboration better, because they have stronger relationships and more interaction. For example, if your team is building 3 different types of widgets, you can create smaller, cross-functional groups of Product, Engineering, Sales, Support, and Marketing, each cross-functional group supporting one type of widget. Cutting an organization into thirds might solve a number of cross-department challenges.
  • If you can’t make the problem smaller, make the rules of engagement really, really clear. With clear rules for things like how-to-hire, maximum discounts, and ad-hoc work, people know what they’re signing up for. When things are handled one-off, each decision is grounds for debates on fairness and appropriateness.
  • If product and engineering teams want something done from short-term incentive teams, consider prioritizing it via changes to the short-term incentive. For example, if a product team wants help launching a new product, they could consider a sales spiff to incentivize selling the new functionality, even if longer-term there’s no plan for a custom incentive.
  • Product and engineering teams should measure the amount of work they do for short-term incentivized teams, so they can discuss short-term prioritization with long-term information.

Performance Management Across Departments

As a manager, performance managing someone based on feedback from stakeholders in other departments is often extremely difficult. There unfortunately will be times when someone is having performance problems that are most acutely felt by members of another department. To make things harder, this person is often an executive.

Does caving to that sentiment create a precedent?

How can you know this isn’t some political power play?

Here’s the problem: if you put too much weight on cross-functional feedback, your team will never trust you; if you ignore cross-functional feedback for too long, your head will be on the chopping block.

At a bare minimum, know that you’re in a tough situation and you need to bring your A game. Some techniques for handling this situation include:

  • Try to establish the ground truth of what is going on, and deal with facts, not opinions. This is always true, but especially true when you’re making judgments across vocations. Avoid crediting any gossip or hearsay - either you have information or you don’t; second-hand, anonymous feedback that is not actionable. e.g. “I heard someone say they thought X didn’t do a good job at all.” If people try to deliver second-hand, anonymous feedback, make clear there’s no currency in it.
  • Some behaviors are never okay, for example: not being respectful, abusive language, withholding information, gossiping about other teams. If the issues are behavioral, strongly encourage all complaints to also be made to HR.
  • If the issues are based on performance, deeply consider if you have a good framework for evaluating the performance of your report. Fix it if you don’t.

In general, the barrier to entry for complaining about another department is essentially 0. It’s one of the favorite pastimes of people that work. However, the barrier to entry for actually reaching out and advocating someone is fired or performance managed is much, much higher. Take that feedback very seriously.

In most companies, in most situations, people really, really try to avoid picking a winner and loser in interactions. That intuition is often right - judge wrong, and it’s a major problem. However, failure to take action can often lead to a slow and painful outcome. Know that the standard is to do too little, and that once in a while, you need to pony up and make a decision.