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Services That Scale

Building A Culture of Collaboration

I remember way back when we sold MySQL to Sun Microsystems. In our early meetings with Sun executives when we would describe how Sales and Marketing worked together on product launches or how Product and Engineering were fully in sync with the roadmap, they would smile wistfully and then complain about how siloed their organization was. Inevitably they would say “that’s how it is in a big company.” 

It struck me as odd. It was a “sorry / not sorry” acknowledgment of the dysfunction they dealt with routinely. They accepted it, shrugged and soldiered on in their cloistered world. 

We were part of the Software business unit, run by Rich Green who had led the acquisition. And while there was good cooperation between Rich and Anil Gadre Sun’s CMO, I got the impression of larger silos representing the different product divisions within Sun. There was the Solaris group, the cloud group, servers, storage, processors and a random assortment of open source technologies. 

When my colleague Jeff Wiss and I decided to run some workshops to improve the product positioning across the company, Anil Gadre gave us his full endorsement. These workshops involved pulling together people from product, marketing and engineering in order to come up with a positioning that reflected the needs of the market and the unique attributes of the product. We worked with various products teams, though it was notable that none of the VPs chose to participate. People cared more about managing up in the organization than actively improving things within their scope. 

What Makes Big Companies Dysfunctional?

The longer I worked at Sun the more I realized it had probably always been this way. The company didn’t just wake up one day with a whole bunch of loosely connected  departments who didn’t collaborate. It had been this way for years. 

Still I wondered, where did it start? Why did people let it happen?

I don’t think the situation at Sun was any worse than most large companies. And perhaps that is part of the problem. People who work in big companies often operate as caretakers and are more prone to maintaining the status quo than changing things. 

Although MySQL wasn’t a large company, it wasn’t a 20 person startup either. We were approaching 500 employees, generating $100m in ARR when we sold to Sun. While we were not totally free of internal drama, there was a remarkably high degree of collaboration between Sales, Marketing, Product, Engineering and Professional Services. Why is it we had a strong culture of collaboration where Sun did not?

Or more generally, how do you make sure a culture remains collaborative as you grow? Here are some ideas that will help.

  • Co-locate your management team. More time together face-to-face helps build trust, common experience which are essential in collaboration. While there are many good reasons to have distributed teams, it comes at a price. Even though MySQL was a fully distributed company, much of the management team was located in the Bay Area and that made things a lot easier when the company had to manage through difficult situations.

  • Bring the management team together regularly. If you can’t work together side by side, this is a good alternative. It can be for in-person planning sessions, quarterly reviews, a board meeting or a conference. Any reason at all can be used to get the team together for a week. The goal is to build up enough shared experience so that working together becomes habitual. The travel is a hassle, but working together is worth it.

  • Hire people with collaboration skills. Ask for examples of how they have worked “across the aisle” with other teams. If a leader can’t collaborate with people in other departments, that’s going to have a negative impact on the organization and should not be tolerated. 

  • Don’t allow second-guessing or bad-mouthing. There are many times difficult decisions will be made and they won’t always come out right. Even with the best intentions, there will be mistakes, screw-ups, errors of judgment. You will occasionally miss deadlines, fall short of targets, ship buggy features, lose deals, etc. It’s all normal in startup world, or any business. When these things happen, you must be able to learn from the mistakes without undercutting people. As tempting as it might be to say “it’s not what I would have done,” —just don’t. You must not allow blame or divisiveness to take root in the company. And if you hear an employee, or worse a manager, speaking in such a fashion, you must take them aside and correct them. Give them a second chance. (But maybe not a third or fourth.)

  • Cross-pollinate departmental planning and review meetings. When a department holds an offsite meeting or quarterly review process, this is a great opportunity to ensure there is participation by adjacent departments. For example, Sales kickoff or Quarterly Business Reviews should include participation from Marketing and Product. When the Engineering team gets together to plan the roadmap, you would expect to have the Product team there, but you should also invite people from the Customer Success or Support teams. Having adjacent teams participate helps ensure there are more diverse perspectives, customers are represented and increases buy-in. 

  • Develop goals together. When it comes to developing the quarterly or annual goals, these work best when departments work together. Ideally leaders work directly with their adjacent teammates (e.g. Sales/Marketing, Product/Engineering) to figure out what is important for the business. While this may entail some degree of compromise, it’s essential that teams buy-in to the goals together.

  • Everyone is valued. You must also be sure that the company values every department equally. There can be no favorites. As soon as there’s a whiff of favoritism, it leads to resentment. If there’s a perception that “Sales can get away with anything” or “that’s the CEO’s pet project” you are feeding into people’s darker emotions. The best way to counter this is to make sure that management is completely fair, that rules are applied equally and that everyone’s voice is welcome in discussions. 

  • Value customers most of all. There are few things more important than building a customer-focused culture. Customer focus is the unifying truth that pulls a great company together.  When things are uncertain, when complex decisions need to be made, there is no better unifying force than doing right by your customers. It is surprising to me to see leaders who don’t actively engage with customers or treat them with disdain. Trust me, it’s never a good look. If the leaders in the company don’t care about customers, don’t expect anyone else to either.

Collaboration Super Powers

I have found over many years, that some roles and teams are better at collaborating than others. Engineering and Sales might be the two departments at the furthest ends of the spectrum when it comes to working together. These are highly specialized departments with distinct cultures, expertise and jargon which sometimes makes it difficult for others to empathize. 

In such cases, I have found that Sales Engineers and Product Managers have a super power when it comes to bridging these worlds. SEs and PMs are also extremely customer focused, which provides an important underlying context. 

I encourage you to think about ways to foster a collaborative culture. And where you can, look for people who are naturally collaborative in the organization to set a high standard for everyone.

What have you seen help drive stronger collaboration in your company? Post your thoughts as a comment below.


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