#94 Asking Other Departments For Help: Cross Functional Dysfunction

A customer was struggling with our software. It wasn’t clear whether the issue was our fault or his fault. But it was clear that we were about to be tossed out of the account.

So I needed help, and I knew right where to go - our small but mighty consulting group.

I knew these folks had the horsepower to figure out what was going on. But, unfortunately, they were always booked at sky high rates at other top priority accounts.

I called the group leader anyway, and asked him to...

  • Pull one of his best people from an existing paying engagement.
  • Put this person on a plane ASAP at our expense.
  • Commit to doing this for free for an unknown period of time.

And, by the way, this customer didn’t own much of our software. The potential was there, but we were just getting our foot in the door. So it was impossible to know what the payoff might be.


I’ve witnessed these kinds of situations at several companies, and way too often they go like this.

The consulting manager defaults to a quick NO. And to let me know not to bother him in the future he might even send a little warning. Something like - “You knucklehead salespeople are always trying to give away the farm.”

And then I'd be equally dimwitted and shoot a finger-pointing email up the management chain. Something like - “If we miss our numbers this month you can blame it on the short-sighted buffoon running consulting.”

And on and on.


Back in post #92 (Michael Porter Strategy Wrap Up) I shared this quote from management guru Peter Drucker…

“Strategy is a commodity, execution is an art.”

And the reason execution is an art is because it's all about people. And people are messy. We have egos. We can be territorial. We can be emotional. We can be illogical. We can hold grudges. We can misinterpret others motives. And on and on. (Follow this link if you want to read some examples of how people are messy.)

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So throw all that in the blender. Add a pinch of time pressure. A pinch of financial pressure. And then try to consistently get along and make good decisions.

If you can pull this off inside your department - you’re doing well.

But the real test is getting it done ACROSS departments. Where you’re dealing with folks from different disciplines with different budgets and potentially different points of view. Maybe even with conflicting objectives and misaligned compensation structures.

When you cram all this into the blender, on top of everything else, oftentimes you end up with a mess.

Which is why I’ve suggested on several occasions that you can long-term differentiate yourself from your competition by learning how to work well across departments. This isn't just art. It’s art squared or cubed or whatever.


Given the challenges I just described, let's break down my request for free and immediate consulting help.

My primary focus was to maximize product sales - I had a number to hit. The consulting manager’s focus was to maximize billable hours - utilization. These are obvious, but there's always more beneath the surface.

My ego was at risk. I'd looked the customer in the eye and told him we'd make things right. We'd figure it out. I had a reputation in the marketplace to think about.

Our consulting manger had his own pressures. If he pulled a resource for me he was probably going to hack off an existing paying customer. Which meant he’d get an earful from the sales team that handled the abandoned account. And he'd be jerking around one of his consultants with unexpected last minute travel.


These kinds of situations are how the sausage is made in the real world. Internal cost centers and cross charges don’t solve all problems. You can't write a “get along” manual that’ll account for everything that might pop up. There are no right answers when you’re dealing with uncertainty.


The consulting manager and I had a brief fact-based exchange. Then he asked me point blank whether I thought it was the right investment for the company long term. I said yes.

Next thing you know I’m picking up his consultant at the airport.

But don't get the wrong impression. There were plenty of other situations where he didn't send help. Where he shared all the other challenges on his plate and I withdrew my request. Agreed that his other priorities were more important for the company.

And, honestly, I can’t even remember how this episode turned out  - whether we got the customer's problem solved.  But that’s beside the point. The real lesson here, the differentiator that’s so hard to copy, is HOW the decision was made.

  • With the correct priorities - company first, individual departments second.
  • In a timely manner - it took less than five minutes.
  • With as few people as possible - we didn’t waste the time of the entire org chart.
  • Without getting personal - nobody got insulted.

If you can make cross-functional decisions by these guidelines, you’ll be way, way, way ahead of the pack.

And next time I’ll give you some ideas for how to get there.


(This site is all about building a Map that will help me do work and life better. So at the end of each post I check in to see if any changes / insights come to mind.)

I have nothing to report this week in terms of Map changes. See you next time.

***NOTE: I've added a new section to the website. It's titled SPEAKING and it's where you'll find brief examples of talks I've given and information on how to get hold of me if you're looking for a speaker.