Competitive Advantage of “Functional Fluidity”

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I realized something today, as I was listening to several senior executives from different divisions in Dell. I’ve managed large projects and operational initiatives across many functions and across divisions — including online, sales, IT, finance, corporate, etc. I’ve seen failures and successes of large projects and operational execution across these groups. I’m convinced there is a strong competitive advantage in what I’ll call “Functional Fluidity”.

Every company has disparate functions, such as sales, accounting, marketing, etc. And in large companies there are similar functions in multiple divisions. It is the ability of these functions to work together, to communicate, to share best practices, or to move in the same direction that can result in exponential benefits to the company. Benefits such as cost savings, improved customer experience, and effective marketing, and employee satisfaction.

Unfortunately, many functions don’t communicate or play well together. There can be many reasons:

– They create their own cultures, with different communication styles

– They don’t understand each other, or have empathy for the others’ jobs

– There is a ‘not invented here’ attitude where one group will not accept direction or ideas from another

– Objectives are not properly communicated top all the way down, and all the way across

– Controls and accountability to share and meet those objectives are not strong enough

– Systems, such as financial reporting, are not shared between groups

– Or leaders of groups do not share accountability of joint metrics

There are many causes. Most boil down to lack of resources, ego, and/or communication gaps.

The end result of this dysfunction can be decisions that improve one area, but hurt another. Or costs cut in one area, simply shifted to another. Or a function makes it easy to meet their myopic goal, but created an obstacle for another group or worse, for customers.

“Functional Fluidity” is the degree to which different functions can move together in one direction, agree to priorities, communicate effectively, execute cross-functional processes, and as much as possible be egoless team players. Sounds like corporate utopia!

However, I think it a worthwhile mission and can be achieved with the “Level 5 leadership” (see Good to Great), symbiotic hiring, managing intentional cross-functional processes, and putting the right systems and accountability in place.

I’m certain books have been written on this subject, and Six Sigma / BPI can be an effective tool to improve this on a project-level. But for now, I’ll simply suggest it’s worth thinking about, and that any manager can decide they can improve at any time with common sense.

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