Collaborating Across an Organization

I was at handbell choir rehearsal last night and while I was on break I was working on this very article about how to collaborate across an organization. I was trying to convey a certain point when I realized I was witnessing it right in front of me.

Handbell choirs are the ultimate display of collaboration. When one person is gone and there is no one to fill in, the entire concert is canceled. It simply doesn’t work — you’d have missing parts in the melody!

Collaboration starts with knowing what the goal is.

Handbell choirs have a very clear goal: play music. It’s clear and understood by every single person.

Organizations get tripped up when they don’t have a common goal. It’s surprising how many organizations aren’t driving toward a clear goal.

Collaboration is impossible when we are all going different directions.

Collaboration begins to happen when you know what others are up to.

Handbell music looks a lot like piano music; everyone plays off the same music. Even though I may only be playing D and E, I can see what everyone is doing. I can begin to see where others might need something from me.

In fact, sometimes handbell music has parts where it’s impossible to play all the notes technically assigned to you and it requires someone else to step in and play a note.

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It looks like you’re gonna need 3 arms to play that part — can I help?

Organizations, especially as they scale, fall into not knowing what other areas are up to. Because I’m the only UX designer, I work on projects in almost every area of InterVarsity. As I design a staff portal and consult on a separate staff learning project, I’ll see a connection. “Hmm…the Portal that all staff will be visiting should tie in to the learning system so that staff would only have to go to one place to see their data and then go take a learning module…

But that doesn’t happen in a world where I don’t know about both projects. One day, I won’t be able to work in every area — what happens then? You need someone who has insights into what the entire organization is doing.

Collaboration is impossible when you aren’t aware of what others are doing.

Collaboration is being open to helping each other and adjusting together to find a way to make it happen.

When a handbell choir has identified a part where it’s going to take some maneuvering to play, we talk about it. We try different options. Sometimes it’s easy to take someone else’s bell, and sometimes when you take someone’s note it forces you to adjust. Sometimes we have to wait on a whole group — be patient and pause when the treble bells need some time to work out a tricky part.

As an example, maybe I’m using my right hand to pick up an F#, which means I need to put the E I had in my right hand in my left hand, and then once I’m done, switch it back back so that I don’t accidentally have the F# in my hand when my partner needs it later. It’s a little tricky for me and I had to make some adjustments to what I was doing, but with some practice we will achieve the actual goal: Play the music well.

For organizations — this may mean shifting deadlines, resources, what people are allocated to work on, and more. To be honest, this is usually the step where collaboration ends, which means collaboration didn’t really happen at all. Instead of adjusting and orchestrating, organizations fall into the trap of silos.

Collaboration is impossible when we refuse to make a shift.

Handbells aren’t always smooth sailing.

Every once in awhile, you’ll get a ringer who refuses to give away a note. Pride, stubbornness, whatever it is, they lose sight of the ultimate goal: play the music well. While they fumble and try to do the impossible all on their own, the entire choir is held back. It’s not music, it’s noise.

If collaboration is feeling harder than it should be:

  • What are the organization’s goals? Am I more concerned about my own goals than the organization’s? Are others more concerned about their own goals than the organization’s?
  • How heads down am I for my own projects? Do I have blinders on to what others are doing? How can I find out what are others working on around me?
  • What can you shift about your work to help another team meet an organizational goal? How can I help someone else see the vision and ask them to shift?

Ashley Crutcher is a Digital Designer at InterVarsity located in Madison, WI. She tweets at @ashleyspixels and enjoys cuddling with her furkiddos, working with yarn, ringing handbells, and thinking too much about everything.

Digital Designer

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