Implementing cross-organizational partnerships is a challenging task in any organization. Leading such efforts requires strong communication, collaboration and leadership abilities to achieve a common goal. But more than just that, sometimes you need a bit of luck, understanding from key executive stakeholders, and engagement from all teams if any such efforts are to succeed.
When I last led an effort to create, implement and run a large cross-organizational planning framework, the primary challenges I encountered were coordinating with multiple stakeholders across different time zones, managing expectations, and guiding conversations and decision-making processes through a complex engineering planning process spanning multiple engineering units. But the most difficult problem I tackled was that of adjusting the understanding and expectations of executive leadership regarding the difficulty of this work, and the willingness of partner organizations to even participate.
Too often executives come up with an “obvious” solution to a problem, without doing the legwork to understand not only the complexity of their solution, but further to gauge the willingness of other teams or organizations to engage.
As we are tasked to direct teams, deliver on OKRs and “go, go, go”, the reality is we are often left out of the design -phase for organizational planning – and then left to deliver whatever was designed without our input.
The framework for the fix
In my situation, to overcome these multi-faceted and multi-layered challenges, I took a proactive approach in two categories of work: 1 – Executive expectation setting 2 – Stakeholder engagement confirmation and expectations setting & buy-in.
For category 1 work I took the following steps to adjust executive expectations:
- Education: I met with my executive sponsor to educate on the complexities involved in implementing desired planning framework. I summarized in two slides, an outline of the planning process, the different stakeholder groups involved, and the challenges that were likely to arise. I aimed to provide a clear picture of the complexity involved – not in order to defer the work, but only to lay the groundwork for expectation realignment.
- Set realistic expectations: Reset expectations about the timeline and likely outcome of the project noting key obstacles, mitigation plans and likely outcomes.
These executive stakeholder meetings took time, and effort, and were often met with resistance – but in the end, enabled me to deliver a product that everyone understood and was able to support.
For category 2 work I held regular meetings with all direct and extended stakeholders to explain the planning framework, answered questions, and ensured everyone was on the same page. Monthly follow-up meetings were also held to provide guidance and ensure the planning was on track. But in order for all this work to be effective, I first held engagement confirmation meetings with key stakeholder leadership to confirm support for the “why” of the work.
A generalized checklist
These engagement confirmation meetings were the most contentious meetings I held in this project – often Engineering leadership had difficulty buying in, and it took multiple follow-up meetings, including parallel management chain executives to secure buy-in. The breakdown in parallel management chains' communication mechanisms quickly became clear – and offered me a great point of reflection for future work. Eventually, each of these obstacles was overcome, and I developed a confirmation checklist I still use today when dealing with parallel executive stakeholders:
- Identify key stakeholders early: Identify the key stakeholders who will be involved in the project, both within and outside of your organization. This may include executives, team leads, and other key decision-makers.
- Schedule engagement confirmation meetings early: Schedule engagement confirmation meetings with each key stakeholder to discuss the project and confirm their support for the “why” of the work. During these meetings, make sure to address any concerns or objections they may have, and explain how the project will benefit their team or organization.
- Address objections: During the engagement confirmation meetings, be prepared to address any objections or concerns that stakeholders may have with data. Listen carefully to their feedback and provide clear and concise responses that address their concerns.
- Follow up: After the engagement confirmation meetings, follow up with each stakeholder to confirm their support and ensure that they understand their role in the project. Schedule regular follow-up meetings to provide guidance and ensure that the project is on track.
- Monitor parallel management chain communication mechanisms: Monitor the communication mechanisms between parallel management chains to ensure that they are effective and that there are no breakdowns in communication that could impact the project.
Frankly speaking – in my project there was a breakdown between multiple key executives not aligning on why the work was being done, what the output would look like, and cascading information down to leaderships in their organization. I was able to overcome these obstacles, and take a valuable lesson away from the experience – and hope this can also serve others as well in their own work. But we must remain cognizant that this will not always be the outcome we observe - all too often, communication at the highest levels of our organizations break down and cause well meaning and potentially impactful programs/projects to fail.
My story resulted int a happy ending only through hard work, and a bit of luck. In the end, working closely with all stakeholders, a final presentation was created that aggregated all planning elements into a cohesive whole. I achieved this through personalized engagement with all stakeholders, and the “appropriately” set expectations of my executive sponsor.
The key conclusion here for everyone to take away is, while directors and leaders are often given large and complex tasks which can be solved through application of well-documented planning and communication approaches – many times, there is more to success than just application of an industry-standard approach – there is a large component of executive understanding, expectation setting and cross-functional partner engagement confirmation which is required to truly succeed; and we can’t always rely on our executives to have done the setup work we need in order to “hit it out of the ballpark”. So keep this in mind in your next large cross-organizational project, and be prepared and ready to respond to such circumstances so your project can succeed.