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Tuesday, 20 September 2016

A Bridge Too Far

If you haven’t seen the film, it’s a classic and although the film is about a group of soldiers being dropped at a bridge further than they are supposed to, the part I relate most to business these days is the scene when they are asking what is on the other side of that bridge. No one knows, but someone is going to have to go over there. Of course no one wants to, but eventually a brave soul takes the steps to cross the bridge ready to try and blow up the bridge but fully expecting to be shot before they get there so he goes in with guns blazing. You will now be asking what does that have to do with people and technology. Put simply, the way we work can sometimes feel like that bridge too far.

In my own journey, I have worked in sales functions, led products and marketing teams and most recently, headed up operations – all disciplines that have a unique view on the business that they are tasked with supporting. From my time in sales, we focused on ensuring we could get the deal done and ask the products team to figure out how we build a product around it. In a products and marketing capacity, our focus was very much on understanding how we could best define the product and throw it over the wall to operations who will figure out how to build it. And in operations, it is the task of figuring out what has been requested and how this is going to actually work with the systems, tools and people a business currently uses. When an operations team then hands it back to sales – proud that they have been able to deliver the customer requirement with a marvelous “Ta-da it’s ready” to which sales may responds with a “That’s not what we asked for”. This is kind of like playing Chinese Whispers as a kid and giggling at how the message became so fragmented when it reached the start of the circle again. But in business we don’t tend to giggle – well not as much anyway!

For those of you familiar with the film “A bridge too far”, and equally familiar with these functions, you may be thinking a bridge crossing a river doesn’t do these differences justice. I would agree in fact that we sometimes view these as worlds apart instead of merely crossing a river. So let’s extrapolate this analogy. You aren’t merely trying to cross a bridge between functions, but actually we are asking people to don a spacesuit, board a rocket and cross a space bridge not knowing how they will be received on the other side or even if they will understand us. But don’t worry we are armed and dangerous with our own knowledge of how things should work in the business in order for us to do our job, right?

Start-up businesses provide a great learning for established businesses, in start-ups you simply don’t have a choice. You have to cross that bridge or otherwise see your start-up fail. And often in start-ups, it requires people who are working across functions in order to keep the business moving at pace. If the business loses momentum, market confidence can rapidly decline and in turn customers may be lost, resulting in a negative position for the business. Employees of a start-up have no fear because there is simply no time to be fearful or worry about how requirements will be misinterpreted. A start-up ensures these worlds overlap so as decisions are made quickly and together to ensure the business is on board with the outcome we are looking for.

I am sure there will be many of you out there thinking, but a start-up is easier they don’t have the scale we do, they don’t have the complexity of services and systems. Well who put that complexity there, or the systems that you are using? What if we could sit together and redefine what that way of working could look like? Forget who was the person who made the decision or who created the complexity, imagine a world where you could change the business model you work in, below are a few of my suggestions on how you can improve that collaboration.

Stop focusing on the customer and think about the one element you have in common no matter what your function is – the customer. It doesn’t matter if you are the lawyer, IT manager, finance manager, marketing manager or sales manager, this is the one aspect that any function will have in common. I would challenge anyone to identify a function that doesn’t impact a customer directly or indirectly. If you are going to say janitor then my answer is first impressions are everything – what if your customer visited a messy office or overflowing bins? What would that perception mean for your initial conversation?

Take a walk in the other team’s shoes – I will always remember a quote from my coach (you know who you are). In any discussion, no matter how much we disagree there will always be at least 10% truth in what the other person is saying. Pause for a moment and reflect on that concept, what could be that 10% from the other function, once you start there you may quickly find there is more truth or more importantly more alignment between your functions you are merely looking from different lenses toward the customer.

Define what is truly important. I am always amazed at the resolute stand we can make between functions to say we can’t change this or this is a deal breaker, with people left scratching their heads wondering where did that come from? Consider as a cross functional team what are key factors for success as well as failure for any activity undertaken. Agreeing these as a group provides guidance to a business and encourages ideation to be brought into a forum seeking to help realise the benefit vs. attending an episode of Dragons Den (Don’t know what it is … watch some of the video’s gulp!)
These are just a few examples based on my experience and I am sure there are many more suggestions from people out there, but the purpose of these examples is to get you thinking, looking out beyond your realm of influence and seize the opportunity.


What I am saying is this is a call for volunteers, volunteers to cross the bridge, unarmed, vulnerable and open to helping the other-side achieve their outcome with the knowledge of not what your world needs but what your world can provide. Take the leap and move to a role where you can challenge yourself to help another function succeed based on your diverse skills. In time, this bridge crossing will be two ways so when you are volunteering you will need to encourage others to follow your example and cross the bridge the other way. This mindset of adding value to encourage collaboration and ultimately drive the outcome the business is looking for namely sustainable growth and serving your customer, all of this resulting in a business realising that no bridge is too far. 

1 comment:

Dieter Sieber said...

Hi Nathan,
This is a very good description. It fully matches my professional experience which was, a company always succeed if all functions work together and no function believes it is the most important. Equally, companies who fail don't follow this simple strategy of team work and customer orientation. In most companies the one or the other function tries to dominate often succeeding due to market conditions (e.g. Sales, Finance, Procurement, IT, seldom Operations). It's simply remarkable how people/companies can complicate issues, particularly in large enterprises.