Building relationships across teams

Julia Harrison
Nov 1 · 3 min read

I spoke at #SHINE19 this week about the importance of building relationships across teams. Here’s a slide I used, with a little commentary:

The choice of how you communicate matters. The more communications you can have toward the top-right corner of the chart, the faster your teams will build useful collaborative relationships.

Here’s why:

From left to right we have the communication media, in ascending order of usefulness for relationship building. The more informal the medium, the more opportunity for chit-chat and getting to know each other. Voice, video and in-person communication give us access to non-verbal information we wouldn’t get through text alone.

From bottom to top we have the forms of communication, in ascending order of value for relationship building.

Transactional communications

“Please reset permissions for user HAR982374”


It’s unlikely you’ll build a relationship communicating like this.

Template-driven updates

We’ve all sat through tedious meetings of people reading out lists of stuff. There’s a slide in the template for it, so we fill it and we try to find something to say about it. It may or may not be interesting or useful. Most people aren’t listening anyway.

Team updates with data and highlights

This is an improvement. We’re skipping the dull stuff and concentrating on the highlights. At least we can make the meeting shorter. It might even be worth paying attention.

Team catch-ups with personal stories

Now we’re getting somewhere. Lisa ran a marathon — she brought in her medal! Gabor’s family adopted a puppy — of course there are photos!

Even if you’re not talking about people’s personal lives, you can make business stories more personal. Which of these two updates feels more like you’re working with other humans?

  1. We resolved a long-running issue with the billing page.
  2. Vicki and Dan finally resolved the long-running issue with the billing page. They were really determined to get it fixed, so they booked out a meeting room to work on it without being disturbed. We were all so happy when they came back saying they’d figured it out!

(For more information about why this helps, see my blog post about storytelling.)

One-to-one catch-ups

Even with the best team catch-ups in the world, people will tend to hold back in front of a large group while they’re still getting to know each other. The first thing that kick-starts a real bond between teams is when team members talk and get to know each other individually. When one or two people across teams know each other, they’ll start to introduce other team members.

Person 1: Agh, this text field I requested on the tariffs table needs to be bigger. I hope it doesn’t take days to get it changed.

Person 2: I know Mika on the database team, let me introduce you, they’ll know the best way to get it done quickly.

Solving problems together

This is rocket fuel for building relationships. Solving a problem with someone (I don’t mean passing a problem back-and-forth, I mean actually working with them), you learn much more about that person than just what they’ve been up to since you last spoke. Is this person detail-oriented or great at seeing the bigger picture? Are they super-technical? Are they the one who seems to know almost everyone in the company? Do they know the history of all the weird, creaky legacy systems? Are they full of energy and excited by the most difficult problems? Are they a stickler for the rules, or more pragmatic and flexible? You don’t have to ask these things, you’ll learn by working with them.

When you and your teammates get to really know your colleagues in another team, the barriers to communication come down. You’ll talk more often because you’ll know each other, and you’ll get to know each other because you talk more often. It’s a virtuous circle and everyone wins.

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Julia Harrison

Written by

Product manager from a background in EUC, ITSM, Agile, DevOps. Talks a lot. Sometimes on stage. Views expressed are my own.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +538K people. Follow to join our community.

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