Everyone knows that to succeed in your job, you can’t do it alone. Collaboration with others leads to all success, whether producing innovation, growing a business, or reducing costs. While people talk about how collaboration is the key to success, one question comes to mind: How do you make cross-departmental collaboration occur when there is no trust?
When I first entered the Supply Chain world, I found myself battling this question. I had recently moved from Clinical Engineering to Supply Chain, and I found myself perplexed at how many support departments wanted to go against Supply Chain’s grain. When I was in Clinical Engineering, departments worked with us because when it came right down to it, there were Joint Commission issues if they didn’t. Now our Clinical Engineering department was fairly easy to work with and had the mentality of taking ownership of a problem, even if it wasn’t ours to own.
But when I moved over to Supply Chain and started working on developing my organization’s Purchased Services & IT Sourcing program, I found that many departments wanted Supply Chain to butt out of their contracts. There were many contracts that we didn’t have on file, and when I first attempted to work with some of these departments, I would hit brick walls. I was told that they know how to manage their contracts and didn’t need my help. And they were right about one thing: they could manage their own contracts.
My challenge was to convince them that with my assistance there was a better way to manage their contracts. And since I didn’t have regulations on my side to ultimately force them into submission (which wasn’t my style anyway), I had to find a way to gain their trust and foster and grow collaboration.
The best means of doing this, I found, was by changing the perception these support departments had of Supply Chain. Back then, Supply Chain was seen as pushy know-it-alls who cared only about the price and not about the quality of products. And while Supply Chain’s purpose is to help reduce costs across an organization, it should never be by sacrificing quality.
Four strategies helped me build trust and create collaboration between Supply Chain and the various support departments, which included IT, Marketing, and Facilities and Maintenance.
Empathy Comes First
The first step to creating collaboration is building trust, and a great tool for building trust is empathy. Many of the departments that had trust issues with Supply Chain were used to being railroaded and dealing with individuals who had an “It’s My Way or the Highway” mentality. These departments were afraid of the sourcing team coming in and destroying their relationships with their vendors. They feared that the sourcing team, in the course of negotiating contracts, would bully vendors, and they would be left to deal with the fallout and disdain from vendors after the contract was finalized. Thus, many of these departments business owners didn’t want their contracts falling into the hands of Supply Chain.
Now, I’m not trying to paint the old sourcing team as a bunch of mobsters or evil-doers. Their job was to reduce cost, and their hearts were in the right place. They were very effective on the supply side because it didn’t require as much touchy-feely stuff.
Since I had recently come from one of the support departments, I was able to empathize with the pain points and knew too well how important vendor relationship are. Being able to put myself in their shoes and knowing what these business owners struggled with on their contracts outside of price points gave me a leg up to start building trust. As my team grew, I was able to teach these pain points and help those individuals build lasting relationships with the business sponsors.
Ignorance is Bliss
The adage “Ignorance is Bliss” means it’s better to not know something in some instances, but I took a different spin on it. Many of the departments that I was working with were used to the sourcing team coming in acting like they knew everything. Employees on the supply side of the house were required to learn everything they could about a product. But in a field such as purchased services, it’s almost impossible to become an expert in areas such as Network & Internet Services or Food & Nutrition Services. While I went into the meetings with these business leaders supplied with information such as benchmarks from my MD Buyline partners and ways to improve their contracts, I also went in armed with questions. I wanted to understand their area more. Even if I felt like I had a good understanding of a particular service, I would “play dumb” in order to gain more of an understanding and let the subject matter experts be the subject matter experts.
I would also use this approach when meeting with vendors. I would ask a ton of questions and ask them to pardon my ignorance. I would pose these questions to both the vendors and the business owners, and many times through my asking very simple questions, deficiencies in the relationship would come to light that we were able to rectify by entering into a stronger contract with better pricing. The more often I encountered these situations with the business owners, the more open they were with me on their contracts.
One thing that most of these departments had in common was that like Supply Chain, they struggled to collaborate with other departments. One of IT’s biggest complaints was getting brought into projects after a solution was already purchased. Many times it was expected that the IT department needed to be involved only when it was time to implement. This caused frustration on IT’s part and ended up costing our organization a lot of extra money because many times the solution was not vetted thoroughly enough.
I saw this pain point in IT and other departments. So I encouraged my team to engage these departments early on either by directly bringing them into the discussion (inviting them to a meeting to scope out a new solution) or by encouraging the business owner to engage these departments. I became known as a champion of including all departments. And since I was able to see the bigger picture (e.g., “We are buying more server equipment for this closet, so we may want to engage maintenance to see if the HVAC output is adequate to keep the systems cool”), I was able make connections and bring value in a way that saved the organization both money and time. I also found as I was building out my requirements in my ExpertRFP tool that the RFP turned out better and was more comprehensive—and thus the outcome was better in the long run—when I had engagement from all parties.
Last, but not least, buy donuts! Or lunch or coffee or some cookies or bagels. Whenever I was starting to work with a new business owner or I was struggling to win over a department or I wanted to ensure the department would stay engaged on an RFP, I would buy them food.
Now this may sound cheesy (no pun intended), but it worked. Each of these departments is trying to field a million and one requests. And just like the Supply Chain team, the pressure on them is immense. They are not told thank you enough or shown appreciation enough. They feel undervalued and disheartened. So when someone buys them a cup of coffee and asks how their day is going, it’s refreshing. It puts them at ease and they remember you as someone who is willing to take a breather. Additionally, it quickly puts you on their good list. And when that happens, they are more likely to work with you and not against you. I’ve never had it fail in all the years I’ve been doing it.
So I urge you to use some or all of these approaches on a department that has put walls up or with whom you are struggling to collaborate. Let me know if it works or if there are other collaboration approaches you have taken. Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.