Project Management: How to Build Interdepartmental Cooperation

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Apr 12, 2023

Bertrand Russell once wrote, "The only thing that will redeem mankind is cooperation." In the world of project management, the degree of success is directly linked to achieving cooperation between team members, managers, departments and outside consultants. And the key to successful cooperation is ongoing, wide-ranging communication.

In The Little Black Book of Project Management (AMACOM, 2002) Michael C. Thomsett explains: "In addition to the manager-team dynamics, you must also contend with communication on three additional levels.” These are:

  1. The Assignment. The executive (or committee) that first assigned the project to you may not agree with your idea of what the project should achieve, or the same person may have a change of mind about the outcome, sometimes without letting you know.
  2. Other Departments. The managers of other departments have their own priorities and can be expected to have problems with your schedule, especially if it affects their workload and timing. Two situations are of special concern to you: when members of other departments are on your team, and when you need to receive information from another department.
  3. Outside Resources. Your project could depend on help or information from companies, consultants, suppliers or agencies that are not part of your organization or division.

When working with other department managers, Thomsett recommends applying the following basic rules of communication to defuse any potential problems.

  • Visit the other manager before you finalize the schedule. No matter how restricted you are by an imposed deadline, and no matter how little say you had in choosing your team, you must be prepared to accommodate your team members' managers. Ask for a meeting and present your initial schedule. Ask whether the proposed schedule will cause any conflict with an employee's recurring duties in the department. If there is a scheduling problem, work with each manager to resolve it.
  • Keep in touch while the project is under way. A weekly status check may be all you need. A three-minute telephone discussion should be enough to double-check schedules. By working together, you and the department manager will be able to resolve any conflicts that arise and so avoid the kinds of breakdowns that lead to serious conflicts, both work-related and personal.
  • Remain as flexible as possible. Stop and think whenever you find yourself about to say, "You told me this wouldn't be a problem." Few departments can judge very far in advance the demands that will be placed on them from above. Successful project managers stay on schedule and within budget to the extent possible, even when team members from other departments are pulled suddenly. You may have to shift duties to someone else or do the work yourself.
  • Confront the problems, not the people. In some cases, managers will seem unreasonable, unyielding, defensive and uncooperative. They may resent having an employee removed from their jurisdiction to work on your project, and this can create an array of hostile reactions. Egos are at play, and no matter how strong a manager is, egos are fragile things. Concentrate on the problem the reaction creates. Ask the manager to suggest a solution that satisfies the departmental needs as well as the project's needs.

If a project involves working with an outside consultant, says Thomsett, you will have to contend with the independence of that adviser as well as with the question of who is running the project. Because the consultant's work is temporary, usually short-term and may not fit within the guidelines or style of the organization, there is potential for conflict. Thomsett outlines the following steps to ensure a smooth working relationship with consultants.

  • Design your schedule so that the consultant is given a deadline in advance of your actual deadline. Although this is not always practical, since the consultant's participation may depend on competition of a particular phase of the project, it is a good general guideline.
  • Be prepared to complete the work without the consultant. The consultant may have been retained because management believes an outsider's point of view will be superior to that of an insider. If you and your core team are able to get the work done on schedule with little or no problem, make sure management knows that the work was completed internally.
  • Accept consultant delays as being beyond your control. You cannot control the consultant's schedule, nor can you enforce a deadline. And you cannot always work around the consultant, either. Once you realize a project will be delayed due to a consultant, inform management at once.

Thomsett concludes: "In all phases of project management, the degree to which you are able to communicate your priorities determines the success of your efforts. Identifying problems well in advance, expressing your understanding of someone else's priorities and confronting issues rather than people are all attributes of effective communicators and successful project managers."