As the first “mash up between Disney and Marvel Comics,” the animated film Big Hero 6 required a rare synthesis of emotion and adventure. Its creation was “uniquely challenging,” said director Chris Williams—requiring, for starters, the building of a supercomputer network that ultimately became the 75th largest in the world. Robust technology in place, the final cut boasts a level of detail unprecedented in animated film, including an urban setting, San Fransokyo, replete with 83,000 buildings and 260,000 trees. And, of course, there’s the film’s emotional core: a cuddly robot, Baymax, who walks like a penguin.
Big Hero 6 was awarded the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature in 2015. Supercomputers aside, what did Williams’ consider most essential to his team? Collaboration. But he acknowledges the challenges. “In some ways, [collaboration] fights human nature,” he told an audience at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. “We all want to be told, all the time, that…every thought we have is gold. But if that’s all you ever get, the story’s not going to get any better.”
It’s one of the biggest challenges to any business; one I’m asked about most often. How to establish a collaborative environment. After all, as Williams says, it just might be that unexpected, outside input that moves an idea from everyday to extraordinary. While Big Hero 6 proves that there are significant rewards to those who master the art of sharing ideas, in reality, it’s often necessary to start at the basics—simply learning how to get along. Indeed this is the heart of collaboration, and without this skill set—and it is a skill set that can be learned—true teamwork across an organization is difficult, if not impossible. Following are some essential guidelines to improving communication among employees and teams.
People are “speaking their position.” Know what that position is.
“When I was working at Citigroup we used to say that the traders were “speaking their position,” said Leah Johnson, a communications strategist who spent years at top posts at Citigroup and Standard & Poors. “For example, if you’re holding a lot of a certain financial instrument that you want to sell, you’re going to talk it up. That’s what teams or groups within organizations do.”
Understanding this is the key to better communication. When working with another department, consider its end goal, the shared goal that drives tasks and initiatives. It might not be the same one that drives you. In fact, it probably isn’t. “It’s not rocket science—traders want to do right by their clients. Public Relations is looking for a good story to feed the media. Investor Relations (IR) is looking to engage the analysts that interpret their business,” says Johnson. These are three equally valid, though very different, motivators. As well, equally necessary.
Here’s a big screen example. Making Big Hero 6, the character development team spent weeks exploring how each lead player would sit down at a table. Meanwhile, the special effects team looked for every opportunity to blow things up. The point? We can’t all be the same and we shouldn’t try.
Goals affect communication styles.
It’s not only important to understand what people communicate but how. Different communication styles are often mandated by the nature of what you do,” explains Johnson. After all, each team serves a particular set of people and follows a specific set of rules. These “dictate their roles; what they feel they are protecting; what they feel they are advancing and what their priorities are. And that very often dictates how they can communicate internally.” For example, IR tends to be proprietary about the information it handles. And that’s really not surprising, when you consider the importance of keeping financial messaging on target—not to mention the rules and regulations that govern IR activities. Alternatively, PR executives seem to operate at a consistently break-neck speed, needing everything now. But they don’t do this for the fun of it, but because they are at the service of journalists on deadline. Without understanding each team’s specific motivation, these vastly different styles of communication can be alienating—a reason for employees to escape to their individual silos and further a sense of disengagement among colleagues.
Don’t fear cultural differences. Understand them.
Differing teams aren’t the same as opposing teams, so save the battle between accounting and marketing for the summer softball league. Perhaps you think other departments move too slowly? Or too fast? Don’t expect others to operate by the same rules that govern your actions—even if your colleagues live in the same town and shop at the same grocery store. “When we are sitting in the same room, sharing geography, we tend to assume we share the same way of operating” said Johnson.
In fact, “the way you see the world is totally different from the way other people see the world. You have certain pressures, certain issues that others don’t have.” Try to observe, not judge. And when you understand their issues, you’ll know better how to work with them.
And when the other team is an ocean away, the distance may be greater but the approach is the same—it’s merely another opportunity for understanding. Johnson describes a common challenge in her business experiences in Japan. “If I ask my Japanese colleagues to do something,” she says, “they may not be willing to at first blush to say no to me.” Turns out that the Japanese believe turning down a request causes them to lose face, so they will rarely say “no.” But they may not follow through. Understanding this, Johnson usually follows through with appropriate decision-makers after a request is made (especially when a request is made in front of a group).
Want to initiate change? First determine a team’s culture and incentives.
Knowledge is the foundation of change. For effective transformation, you first need to understand the thoughts, ideas and biases that drive your team or business. Ultimately, this information will underscore the issues, attitudes and processes that need tweaking—and it can inform managers how to best manifest change.
When a company is experiencing divisiveness among teams, you can’t simply initiate “a lot of training sessions on talking to each other,” says Johnson. The effort will come off like window dressing; employees will probably just zone out and chalk it up as another wasted hour “doing the values thing.” To forge better relationships, you first have to understand each team’s culture; know what drives its members. Next ask (and be ready to answer) the crucial question: What’s the point of change? What modifications do you want to make? Why? And, importantly, what’s in it for employees? Any less, says Johnson, is like “driving long distance without a GPS.”
Finally, understand the incentives to change—and discuss these incentives with employees. Some departments may be more difficult to convince than others. For example, why would the top moneymaking department feel the need to do anything differently? Understand team members’ thoughts and concerns. Be ready to address them from the start. And for those who simply refuse to budge? Perhaps share the wisdom of Benjamin Franklin, who once said, “when you’re finished changing, you’re finished.”
This article was first published on Forbes.com by Erica Dhawan.