Ellucian CIO: Cross-functional teams need shared accountability to succeed

Lee Congdon shares seven elements that helped his team improve cross-functional work
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We’ve reached the point where IT projects done to a spec, in a vacuum, are becoming increasingly rare. Individuals across the business are more tech-savvy, the capabilities of IT systems have more enterprise-wide visibility, and expectations are higher, driven by improved end-user interfaces and mobile apps. Due to these factors, it’s becoming much more common to pull in a cross-functional team from the start of a project.

Such a team makes it easier to address any challenges early in the cycle and adjust the goals of the project, rather than waiting until it’s delivered and realizing that it missed the mark.

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At Ellucian, we’ve had cross-functional teams and collaboration in our organization for quite some time, but there’s a subtle transition happening right now. It’s becoming more important for everyone to understand that we all share accountability. There’s not a lead group or one accountable individual in a given business function – every single person is on the line. This transition has been incredibly positive for the organization, but it has come after a lot of work.

Seven elements have been instrumental for us in driving this change:

1. Shared objectives: You must ensure that the key stakeholders in cross-functional teams view success in the same way. It’s going to take a little more time up front in a project or initiative, but it’s time well spent. Make sure you talk about shared objectives, write them down, and get folks on the team to agree before moving forward. And know that it’s going to get repetitive. You’re going to be stressing those shared goals throughout the initiative as you bring more people in, and as it becomes more visible to the organization. Yes, it may evolve over time, but the key is to keep going back to what you’re trying to accomplish – and why it’s the right thing to do.

2. Transparent communication: Deliberate communication on a regular cadence is incredibly important, and it must happen at all levels of the organization, from the executives to the people on the front lines of the project. This is especially true if there’s bad news or a change that some people aren’t going to like. Hiding that information, or not being up-front and addressing the challenges through communication, is a real disadvantage in a cross-team collaboration.

Relationship management becomes another element of project management.

3. Relationship owners: You may already have a set of folks in your IT organization who are business relationship managers. Generally, these are the people responsible for representing the IT organization to the business functions. As part of a cross-team collaboration initiative, your entire IT leadership team, whether they’re accountable for infrastructure or applications or user support, should be relationship owners as well. They are responsible for bringing the team together and ensuring that the various tensions get addressed quickly and efficiently throughout the project. Essentially, relationship management becomes another element of project management.

4. Joint ownership: We just completed a large finance project, and there were challenges as there are in any large project. But it was ultimately a significant success because of joint ownership. There wasn’t a gap between what the finance team wanted, what the auditors wanted, what the IT team wanted, and what other stakeholders wanted. We all worked together, had each other’s backs, and worked our way through the issues as they occurred. Having a leadership team jointly accountable to each other was a significant benefit and value-add. For IT, working to become a trusted business advisor can help you get to shared accountability. As CIO, you should expect and encourage the IT team to understand the business problem and not only take responsibility for the details of the technology, but importantly, to own the business outcome.

Set expectations for personal and professional growth from the onset of a project.

5. Growth mindset: I think a key element of our success, especially as it relates to cross-team collaboration, is holding our team to a high level of expectations. We expect that our folks are going to grow into larger roles. We expect that they are going to take on additional responsibilities and that they’re going to be accountable for business success. Setting those expectations for personal and professional growth from the onset of a project has been incredibly important.

6. Agility: For most IT projects, you’re going to have some agile elements in the mix. As a consequence, you must get everybody on the team comfortable with the idea that they’ll be working in sprints, and that they’re targeting short-term delivery of business value in the context of the overarching project direction. That also means getting the business comfortable with the idea: “We’re going to do this, see how it works, and move on to the next step.” Your job is to demonstrate the significant value this brings to the project – namely, that you can evolve and zero in on the best solution as the project progresses rather than trying to define everything in absolute detail at the beginning.

7. Change management: Just like any initiative, managing change is an important element of cross-team collaboration. You need to get comfortable with saying, “Here’s what to expect and when you’re going to get it,” and then, “Here it is,” and then, “What do you think?” on an ongoing basis. You are probably going to spend much more time on change management than you think you should, but remember, you are in the midst of the project and your end users are focused on other things. You have to work to make it top of mind for them. So as part of your cross-functional efforts, you’ll need to think about change management in a disciplined fashion with assigned responsibilities.

All of these elements have helped us to materially improve cross-team collaboration over the last year, and we now have a new model for approaching business problems. As we take on new projects with various business groups, we have a solid, cross-functional team framework that is supported by shared accountability. I recommend you consider a similar approach for your IT team.

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Lee Congdon is Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer at Ellucian, the leading independent provider of higher education software, services and analytics.