Back when I worked at Aeropostale, the company decided to launch stores internationally--and I was tasked with creating the working group to initiate our international strategy. At that point, I didn't have a single person reporting to me. But I had to get buy-in from every functional area in the company.
Before I could start the initiative, I had to convince people to go out of their way to help me. In the end, I was able to do just that.
Success in a situation like this comes down to how you go about selling your idea and getting people on board. Here's what my experience heading the international task force taught me about effective cross-functional collaboration:
1. Get everyone excited about the initiative.
When asking someone to join a project outside of their normal duties, your first step is to clearly articulate the vision and the potential.
You have to be able to tell people why they'll want to be involved with this. What will they learn? What experience will they gain? What's in it for them? Your job is to get people jazzed about helping out. So you have to pitch the dream.
No one has extra hours in the day readily available for the first person who needs help. You have to build excitement around your project if you want anyone to dedicate time to it.
2. Soft seed your ideas before bringing everyone together.
Never ask anyone to do a specific task the first time you meet with them. You can't walk in the door and say, "Hey, we're building this task force," and then proceed to tell them what you want from them.
It's a lot easier to ask for a favor when you already have a relationship.
Initially, it's best to meet one-on-one with everyone you need buy-in from. But don't start asking them to do you any favors. Just explain what your role is and why the initiative you're working on is so exciting. Ask them plenty of questions about what they do, what's important to them, and what they'd like to learn.
Then, when you bring everyone together, you can make a pitch each person will actually be interested in listening to.
3. Keep an open mind and an optimistic attitude.
It's easy to kick off a collaboration with a combative attitude. You're asking people to do something outside of their normal roles, so you're preparing to fight through every step to get things done.
Assuming a defensive posture won't help you accomplish anything.
You want to remain optimistic and walk into every meeting with a positive attitude. You'll often be surprised at how willing people are to help you, especially if you've already established a concrete vision of what you want to accomplish.
4. Know when to name drop.
One of the most important aspects of a cross-functional collaboration is getting buy-in from at least one member of the senior leadership team.
No matter how well you sell your initiative's vision, one or two people will always refuse to get on board. Obviously, name-dropping should be your last resort, but it's also one of the most effective tools you have at your disposal.
If you need someone's support but they continue to stonewall you, it's helpful to be able to tell them exactly who wants to see this initiative succeed.
5. Make sure you've done your research.
We've all been in meetings where the person leading it clearly doesn't know what they're talking about. Each statement raises more questions, and everyone leaves doubting anything will actually be accomplished.
To avoid this situation, it's your job as the leader of a collaborative task force to be as informed as possible.
That means asking questions about the roles and viewpoints of everyone involved before dragging them into a meeting. Learn about what they do and what's important to their jobs so that you sound credible and knowledgeable when you eventually gather everyone together.
6. Don't bring the hammer down.
It's possible to force collaboration by being a bully and shoving tasks down people's throats. It's possible, but not a great long-term strategy.
The issue with bringing the hammer down on people is that you can only accomplish something that way once. If you burn bridges in the pursuit of your goal, you're ensuring that no one ever goes out of their way to help you again.
And if you can't get anyone to work with you afterward, that really defeats the purpose of collaborating in the first place.