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Advanced cat herding

When you reach the Principal or Partner level, you may be asked to drive a cross-org initiative—a challenging assignment. You must get lots of people in groups unrelated to yours who don’t know you to deliver unplanned work they don’t prioritize on a timeline disassociated from their schedules for a cause they don’t honor and rewards they likely won’t receive. So, it’s challenging.

Driving ordinary cross-group or cross-team projects is tough enough. Different people on different teams have different priorities, goals, and pressures. Coordinating their work is often referred to as herding cats because each person and team is independent and hard to keep aligned. However, at least these folks are in the same organization with the same leader, high-level plan, and schedule. Cross-org initiatives don’t have those advantages and thus call for advanced cat herding.

Even with the challenges, you might welcome the opportunity to drive a cross-org initiative. It gives you broad exposure, regular engagement with executives, and a chance at substantial impact. However, it also gives you the opportunity to annoy large swaths of the enterprise while achieving little. To avoid failure, some people become tyrants while driving these initiatives, which might improve their chances of success but definitely leaves a trail of resentment. Wouldn’t you rather successfully drive cross-org initiatives as a guide helping everyone avoid embarrassment while taking pride in achieving a broad accomplishment together? How do you perform this advanced cat herding? Read on.

Eric Aside

This column discusses cross-org initiatives that have the executive sponsorship necessary for success. If you’d like to gain executive sponsorship for your initiative, read Controlling your boss for fun and profit and The VP-geebees.

Where, who, why, what, and when

The first step to successfully driving a cross-org initiative is finding all the teams in the company that are impacted by the initiative. These are the teams that would create one or more deliverables for the project. For example, say you were driving a cross-org initiative to improve the accessibility of your company’s products. You’d first need to find all the teams that produce user interfaces. This typically involves searching your company’s intranet. In our example, you’d search for a list of all product teams.

The next step is determining who owns the work plan (backlog) for each team. This can take a few days of messaging back and forth to team channels and/or team members until you pinpoint the right person for each team. The outreach can be done in parallel—a nuisance, but necessary.

Once you’ve located all the teams’ plan owners, you’ll need to meet with them individually (30 minutes each). Yes, you could have a big meeting instead, but not everyone will come, and not everyone who comes will engage, so you’ll have to meet with them individually anyway. Remember, these plan owners are helping you be successful and have few incentives to do so. The least you can do is meet with them personally. For very large initiatives with hundreds of plan owners, ask management to assign an initiative driver for each org. Then meet personally with each driver, treating them as plan owner for their org. (Share this column with them.)

At each individual meeting, introduce yourself and the reasons why your initiative is important to the company. Discuss which executive(s) are sponsoring the initiative, what the initiative’s goals are, and a rough idea of the expected timeframe. You’re not trying to convince the plan owners to care—you’re only informing them that the company cares. Then ask each plan owner to provide you with a few pieces of information: the name of the plan owner’s backup person, their team’s high-level list of initiative deliverables, and a link to wherever that list is tracked. You can create the deliverable list during the meeting. Emphasize that there’s no need to prioritize or estimate the deliverables now—you’re just collecting information. Doing so makes the meeting less confrontational and more cooperative.

Eric Aside

For more on cross-group projects, read We’re on the same team.

Don’t shoot the messenger

Which brings us to your role as the driver of a cross-org initiative. Many drivers see their role as an enforcer. That can be effective, but it can also lead to resentment and shoddy work under duress. Instead, you can act as a guide and conduit. You’re a conduit between executive leadership and the people executing the plan. No judgments, just the facts. You’re a guide helping teams understand what executives want and how to deliver it successfully.

Teams respond well to guides trying to help them, and they trust those who share information transparently and represent them fairly. Yes, you could be an enforcer driving people through fear, but you’ll get just as much success without the resentment, sloppy work, and stress by helping people understand what executives expect and assisting them in achieving it.

Eric Aside

For more on the perils of leading through fear, read What’s my motivation?

The secret of my success

If you’re only a guide and conduit, how do you drive a successful initiative? By using the hidden power of the initiative driver: You own how success is measured. Executives will define the goals of the initiative and clarify the requirements, but you get to design the scorecard and present it.

The most common success metric for initiatives is percent complete. The items to complete are the high-level deliverables from each team. The definition of complete is up to you and should be shared with all the plan owners, ideally when you first meet with them. The scorecard is typically a list of the teams with a percent complete bar next to each team. The color of the bar and its frame should be red if the team is clearly behind schedule, yellow if at risk, and green if on track.

Note that the bar color is relative to the cross-org initiative schedule, not the individual team schedules. A team might be on track relative to their own prioritized plan yet be well behind the needs of the initiative. That’s the sort of information to factually present to executives—not to embarrass the team, but to make it clear that there are conflicting priorities that need to be addressed by the executives.

You’ll want to send regular initiative status reports to all stakeholders, including the executives and the plan owners (typically monthly). You’ll also regularly present your status to executives (typically quarterly). Both these status reports contain the current scorecard (updated based on the links to the deliverables) along with commentary about red and yellow teams and hand-picked success stories about green teams. The executive report usually summarizes a longer time period and is in the form of a presentation instead of an email.

Be fair and factual in the commentary—no judgment. Teams have real constraints, and you should discuss them. Send a draft of each report to plan owners a week in advance for comments and corrections (contact the plan owner’s backup if they are away). Indicate that no response means approval. Gladly accept edits and offer to help plan owners get their team to green status in whatever way you can.

Eric Aside

For more on scorecards, read How’s it going?

We won

No team wants to appear in red on an executive scorecard. As a result, teams will be motivated to prioritize initiative deliverables and meet your completion criteria. If you represent the teams fairly and try sincerely to help, the teams will work with you to resolve their constraints and make the entire initiative succeed.

A green scorecard will reflect a successful initiative when you find all the impacted teams, get a list of each team’s deliverables from their plan owners, share your definition of a complete deliverable with the teams, regularly present a scorecard of completion status (red/yellow/green) for each team based on that team’s risk to the initiative, factually and fairly describe why certain teams are at risk (reviewed by the teams in advance), help teams get to green status, and share success stories of green teams.

Sharing hand-picked success stories about green teams transforms a team’s fear or stress about working on the initiative into pride. It encourages successful teams to assist those that are struggling. It makes every team want to be green, not just fear being red. That’s what a cross-org initiative should be: a source of pride for the company and the employees who make it happen. If you’re driving the initiative, your success is that much sweeter.

Eric Aside

Special thanks to Bob Zasio and James Waletzky for reviewing the first draft of this month’s column.

Want personalized coaching on this topic or any other challenge? Schedule a free, confidential call. I provide one-on-one career coaching with an emphasis on underrepresented, midcareer software professionals. Find out more at Ally for Onlys in Tech.

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