Editor’s Note: Alyssa Fox begins a new series for TechWhirl exploring the challenges and pitfalls of managing a communications team–or any kind of team for that matter. We encourage you to share your own experience or suggest topics for future articles.
We talk a lot in the technical communication profession about breaking down silos, but how can we do that if we don’t know the people in charge of each of those silos? The unfortunate reality we face is one where organizations are divided into silos by functional area (development, sales, testing, content development), but working closely with your peer managers can blur the lines of the silos in beneficial ways. Success in your role is not possible without successful interaction with your peers.
Having strong relationships with peer managers benefits us in multiple ways:
- It can mitigate the reaction we get when we can’t dedicate as much time to a project as others would like.
- It can result in better content reviews because people in other areas want to help us.
- It can influence approval for our headcount or projects.
- It can garner more support for change initiatives that we’re interested in pursuing.
- It can improve the health of the work environment.
“A technical communication department will shrivel and die without open channels of communication with other departments,” says Neal Kaplan, User Assistance Manager at Ayasdi. So what can we do to keep that from happening? Take the first step to get to know some of the other managers. Whether it’s in a social setting or a professional one, introduce yourself and let people know who are you are and what you do. Don’t be scared! People won’t bite. Most are happy that you took the first step to say hello. I was recently in a meeting full of managers, directors, and vice presidents where almost everyone in the room knew each other. There was one man there who only knew a couple of people since he is based in Europe, but he was the one going around introducing himself to everyone else. That impressed me. He showed an interest in meeting his fellow managers and started building those relationships on day one of meeting them.
Often, getting to know your co-workers in a social setting allows for a lighter atmosphere. Invite your fellow managers to get coffee or to lunch. It’s a great way to start talking about what you both do, and how you might help each other going forward. Even if you don’t work directly with a particular manager at that time, it’s good to establish a relationship with your peers before you might need to work with them later.
Determining Priorities and Respecting Roles
Each team has its own priorities, and therefore, each manager has his or her own priorities. And at first glance they may appear to have little in common. To get help achieving your objectives, you need to know what’s important to other managers. Andrea Ames, who collaborates with many other functional managers in her role as a Content Experience Strategist at IBM, advises that you know what keeps other managers up at night and what their customers (internal or external) need. If you position your conversation in terms of how you can help them or do something for them, it’s much more likely they will reciprocate when you need help from them later. “One of the best ways you can prepare for this conversation,” Ames says, “is to educate yourself ahead of time on the function that manager oversees so that you can quickly gain respect.”
While we want to work together with others towards common goals, we can’t do it without mutual respect for each manager’s role and their specialization. Collaborating on every aspect of a project is no more efficient or practical than isolating your team in a single silo. Knowing the responsibilities, skills, and boundaries of each functional area contributes to more efficiency and helps determine who can do what on a project.
Collaborating with Others
Technical Communication teams most often work closest with Engineering or Marketing groups. Ensure that your content development work is included in project plans so the entire product is ready to go at once. Kaplan notes that this kind of collaboration helps the project team track all parts of what they’re building, and helps the content team have a primary source for release notes and documentation updates.
Tech Comm teams usually interact with Marketing teams in branding and consistent look and feel efforts. However, you can take that collaboration further by working closely with Marketing managers to ensure you’re presenting consistent product positioning and messaging in your technical documentation. Other options here including having the technical writers describe solutions in marketing blogs or assisting with technical information on the website, which is usually Marketing’s domain.
Neal Kaplan suggests asking the Technical Support team for a list of common user questions and issues. He and his team use this information to improve the documentation and also provide the support team with consistent, validated answers they can easily and quickly deliver. But, Andrea Ames cautions us to take special care when dealing with managers in functional areas, such as support, that make money based on customers’ inability to use the products on their own. We don’t want to give the impression that we’re working on initiatives that might ultimately cost or replace jobs in those managers’ functional areas.
Once you establish and start maintaining healthy relationships with the managers in other areas of your organization, you can look at ways to improve your collaboration. When you understand what’s important to others, look for overlap in your priorities and theirs to see what you have in common and start there.
Have regular sync-up meetings with other managers to review how things are going, what can be improved, and how to go about making those improvements.
“Don’t be afraid to ask for and offer help,” he says. “Ultimately, we’re all on the same team and trying to create awesome experiences for our customers!”
- “Building a Collaborative Team Environment,” Office of Personnel Management website, United States Government. http://www.opm.gov/policy-data-oversight/performance-management/teams/building-a-collaborative-team-environment/
- Management and Leadership in Technical Writing, Yehoshua Paul, TechWhirl