The Cure for Cross-functional Gridlock

Gridlock“They’re asking me for status updates, but they haven’t even given me the specs yet!” cried a manager in frustration.

Whatever your industry, I bet you recognize this Dilbert-esque scenario. This is a classic case of “cross-functional gridlock”, where functions and departments who need to coordinate become stuck, each unable to deliver on their goals. In its extreme form, cross-functional gridlock can escalate to such heated conflict that entire projects or processes are paralyzed just as city drivers are by traffic gridlock. And just as with a traffic jam, if you look down at the pattern from above, you can see how a smooth flow becomes a tight knot of honking vehicles and frustrated drivers pulled tighter and tighter as each player tries to push forward.

Cross-functional gridlock can show up anywhere you need coordination across boundaries.  Think of engineering working with manufacturing, sales working with service, central functions working with field departments, information technology working with business units, internal groups coordinating with external customers.

Though every project manager knows the importance of communication, cross-functional gridlock remains a persistent barrier to business results. “Things keep coming to us with parts missing or in a form we cannot use,” said a manager in a public utility. “That means we can’t deliver quality downstream. I’m new, but apparently this has been going on for some time. The team has told the other departments, but nothing seems to change.”

Let’s briefly explore why cross-functional gridlock shows up despite our best intentions, and what you can do to untie the knots and get the deliverables flowing again.

The Causes of Gridlock

There are four primary reasons why cross-functional gridlock shows up so frequently, despite our best intentions and the high costs:

  1. Conflicting Goals & Metrics – Even within the same organization, different departments and functions are evaluated based on different metrics or quality criteria. This is especially true in matrixed organizations. Also, customers may prioritize different dimensions of a project’s outcomes than the service provider.
  2. Missing Inputs & Feedback – The main difference between a service process and a manufacturing process is that the customer is intimately involved all along the way. In a knowledge economy, many processes are essentially services where specialized expertise is applied in ways that depend on critical inputs from the customer at multiple points. You cannot just order an angioplasty like a new car and show up a week later to pick up your clean heart. Yet as we plan work and allocate resources we tend to think in terms of “outsourcing” and “accountability” as if our processes were independent.
  3. Uncoordinated Availability – We all have less slack in our schedules these days. While this seems more efficient on the surface, it decreases the chances that we can be available at the exact moment we are needed to provide critical inputs to keep a project moving forward on plan. When critical steps are delayed, rework tends to increase, compounding costs in the process.
  4. Language Barriers – We tend to be oblivious to the jargon and assumptions that help us communicate quickly with our peers. What do all the acronyms stand for? What does a good specification look like? What counts as good quality? If these are not clear, we will not get the inputs we need or be able to make use of feedback. Worse, many businesses use the same terms with different meanings, so we may think we are on track when we aren’t.

Eight Tips for Untangling the Knots

Here are several tips to help you untangle the self-defeating knots of conflict and wasted effort so you and the other functions involved can get the results you want. They are drawn from the fields of conflict management, project management, and process coordination.

  1. Approach with Curiosity – Adopt an attitude complete curiosity about the hidden opportunities for improvement that you cannot see yet. Start from the assumption that each of your stories about the issues is true, but incomplete. Example: Two hotel department managers discover a third department is creating their problem.
  2. Link to Each Others’ Interests – Try to identify the costs for them for continuing in the current fashion, and link your requests or feedback to the payoffs for them. Though your goals and metrics are different, clearly you have shared interests if you are stuck in gridlock. Example: A lead engineer helps her account manager see that they are the only one who can move the client to action on a delayed project.
  3. Negotiate Targeted Investments in Collaboration – Paint a vivid picture of where ineffective coordination will likely lead for both of you and ask the other side  to invest a small amount of time to get on the same page by clarifying outcomes, roles and communication mechanisms. Example: A technology project stalled for 11 months is completed in 90 days after a team re-launch.
  4. Create a Shared Picture – Map the processes, deliverables or system in a way that makes outcomes explicit, shows how any shared products or services work, and helps you visualize exactly how each of your pieces dovetail together.  Example: A frustrated web developer finally closes a 2-year-old project, partly because the client draws a map of the navigation she wants.
  5. Map the Inputs You Each Need – Ask each side where they are held up, focusing on the inputs they need to move forward. Piece together the sequence of inputs and deliverables to see what is furthest upstream. Then agree on when you will each complete the first two or three inputs, and have a way to flag whose court has the ball at each stage. Example: An executive is shocked to realize he is the bottleneck in a stalled project.
  6. Structure Your Requests – Create forms, templates or processes to help the other side give you what you want. Be sure to use a format that is natural and comfortable for the other side to complete.Example: By giving the customer draft specifications to respond to rather than a blank sheet of paper, a team has solid specs in 2 weeks rather than 2 months.
  7. Create 2-Way Handoffs – To get the best result, customers need background on what is possible and implementers need enough context to make judgment calls later on. Rather than just asking for specifications, arrange for 2-way discussions with actual customers and implementers to explore options and jointly negotiate the best approach.  Example: A developer and a customer rapidly prototype various approaches over 2 days, then agree on the final specifications for an intranet site.
  8. Amplify Shared Outcomes – Counteract the tendency for each side to focus on their local goals by actively identifying and tracking indicators that reflect shared goals. Ensure that every action that positively impacts those shared goals is positively acknowledged and rewarded where appropriate. Example: HR field staff and centers of excellence are both viewed as more effective when they make it a shared goal to have line business leaders satisfied with HR overall.

There are many circumstances when you can head off this type of gridlock simply by redirecting energies from fighting fires to getting at the root causes.  It helps to remember that there are indeed many examples of cross-functional collaboration that are a source of innovation, creativity and value.  These sorts of effort just require more concerted effort and imagination to ensure shared payoffs guide day-to-day behavior than with traditional team-focused plans.

This article by Elizabeth Doty was originally posted at on May 30, 2010.