How To Start A Healthy Epidemic

If you’re working in a rapidly growing startup, chances are high that cross-functional collaboration isn’t as smooth or seamless as it was a few years back, when you were really small. There are frictions, and where these frictions have been going on for a while, you may see some silos or even factions start to emerge.

Wouldn’t you love to get back to when cross-functional collaboration was a strength, not a weakness?

To do that, let’s say you hire a coach or trainer who teaches collaboration and communication skills to all your managers. Everyone agrees that the training was great and that they learned a lot. Things improve, temporarily. But if you check again in a year, will you see a company transformed by all that learning?

Probably not.

I know, because back in my early coaching days, that’s what I did. Founders brought me in to teach them all kinds of valuable skills, and I made sure they practiced these skills on “real-life” issues so I could see they were applying them effectively and getting the benefits. When that was done, I considered my job complete and went on my merry way.

But when I followed up with them six or twelve months later, I found that less had truly stuck than I had hoped for. In most cases, they were still applying some of what I had taught them, and getting benefit out of it, but not at the level needed to really transform the company’s culture or performance.

In short: even if you train people really well, it’s natural for new skills to decay.

Why? Because habits die hard… people are busy… the coach is long gone… those who were trained leave, and new people join… and pretty soon folks have regressed to the old ways of doing things.

So while training can make a positive impact, it isn’t enough to create a lasting fix to the org challenges you may face, such as cross-functional collaboration.

What I’ve learned is this: for new skills to become deeply embedded in your organization, they need to be simple, sticky…and viral.

The skills I teach are simple: easily learned and easily remembered. And they are sticky, in the sense that they bring enough immediate benefit that people naturally want to use them. But if you really want to change your organization, new skills have to spread naturally — i.e., virally — from people who were trained to people who weren’t. From old hands to new employees. And from one team to another.

So the question is, how do we make things viral? While it may not be as fast as Omicron, these four steps can spark an epidemic that spreads new skills across your org.

4 Steps to Create an Epidemic

This process can be applied to any skill you want to spread, but in this illustration, I’ll focus on cross-functional collaboration.

Let’s say you’ve just joined a scale-up. From your very first day, you notice some curious and interesting things going on.

Step 1) Collaborative behaviors are codified into Rituals — and people commit to using them

In your weekly team meeting, there’s a standing agenda item about cross-functional projects. Your boss asks lots of questions, and she never lets team members get away with whinging about others. Her mantra is: where there’s a problem, there’s a solution. So, she’s constantly pressing people to come to the meeting not only with complaints and problems but also constructive solutions.

I’ve written before about how Rituals trump training. I increasingly see the challenge of building a high-performing organization as a lot like the challenge of getting fit: if you hire a trainer and he shows you how to do all the right strength-building moves, but you don’t commit to going to the gym, then nothing is going to happen. But if you commit to a Ritual of hitting the gym three times a week, then it won’t be long until your fitness is really improving, and soon the Ritual will become a habit. So take the problem you’re having, identify what behaviours are necessary, and get people to commit to practicing these day in and day out.

Step 2) Managers role model collaborative behavior

Now you start to attend some cross-functional meetings, and you notice that the senior folks frequently ask for feedback from other departments on how their teams are working with the other teams. They’re quick to accept a share of the responsibility for any lapses or gaps in effective collaboration that may be identified, and they move quickly to address these gaps. How long will it take until you’re doing the same?

Step 3) Systems reward and reinforce collaborative behavior

At your first one-to-one with your new boss, she explains that the company has a complex business model that requires a ton of cross-functional collaboration, and that a central part of the company’s culture is to make that work seamlessly. Everyone accepts it’s not easy…but that’s why their performance management system places a high value on the scores you’ll get from your cross-functional peers in your annual 360, and the people who are good at that get paid the most and promoted the fastest.

Step 4) Leadership recognizes exemplary collaborators

Every month during the company’s town hall, the CEO calls out a few people or teams who have been exceptional collaborators. Quite often, he points out cross-functional teams, and commends everyone for their great collaboration.

Get Addicted to the Good Feeling

Let’s go back to the fitness analogy for a moment. If you’re out of shape and want to improve your health, it’s important to have clear guidance on your diet and exercise plan. It takes the thinking out of the process and sets you up to do the right things.

But there are lots of different fitness programs, and lots of healthy diets. You could do yoga, weightlifting, kickboxing, dance, running. You could go keto, or try intermittent fasting, or become vegetarian.

Which one should you follow?

The truth is, it doesn’t really matter. Most programs will vastly improve your health as long as you stick with them long enough. The goal isn’t to follow one program always and forever — it’s to get to the point where you feel great and you want to continue to feel great. The feeling is almost an addiction. At this point, eating well and exercising are just the norm for you, your default way of living. When you get off track, your body naturally cues you to get back on so that you can get that good feeling again.

The same goes for the behaviors we’re talking about here. Rituals are your “fitness program.” They’re detailed instructions for generating high Productivity and Positivity. When you have high Productivity and Positivity in your work environment, it feels great. And when you’ve been accustomed to that for a while, nothing less feels good enough.

In my practice, I have 42 different Rituals that encapsulate ‘great behaviours’ across many different situations. But my goal with my clients isn’t to get every person doing all 42. It’s to get everyone doing enough of the Rituals frequently enough to make Productivity and Positivity the norm — so that people get addicted to that good feeling.

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Rob is an expert guide in the world of startup leadership and high-performance organizations. A 3-time CEO, he now advises many startups including 7 unicorns.

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Rob Bier

Rob Bier

Rob is an expert guide in the world of startup leadership and high-performance organizations. A 3-time CEO, he now advises many startups including 7 unicorns.

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