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What a heckler at a national conference taught me about inter-agency collaboration

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Collaborative work between entities (e.g. departments, organizations) generally includes a single point of contact for each. That individual is responsible for the daily management and centralizing internal communications. They make sure information is flowing through their chain of command and assume their counterpart is doing the same. The truth is that you don’t really know if external stakeholders get information to the right people the right way at the right time until it is too late. This post outlines a few strategies you can use to help ensure communications flow like an ‘H’. To start with, don’t forget about a strange email from your state homeland security agency like I did.

The phone call and subsequent heckling took place about ten years ago. Homeland Security was a new department at the federal level experiencing massive growing pains and the states were following that lead. 9/11 was still fresh on everyone’s minds and emergency management and public health agencies were trying to work together really for the first time. Oh yeah – they were also struggling over control and funding of massive preparedness grants which have since mostly faded. For the first time, hospitals had access to grant funds to retrofit their disaster preparedness for the new threats and bureaucracy of this new era.

I was managing an emergency preparedness program for a state hospital association at the time and was concerned at the lack of data on how well hospitals used an important best practice called the Hospital Incident Command System (HICS) which was in revision at the time. Luckily for me, the military in coordination with my state homeland security agency were planning a massive statewide exercise that gave me and my hospitals a learning opportunity of a lifetime. The results were fascinating and we wanted to share so I submitted abstracts to a national healthcare emergency management conference (NDMS) which were accepted! This was an exciting opportunity to share applicable lessons learned with other healthcare facilities and public health agencies. My excitement was about to be spoiled by an important lesson about what I now call the Reporting ‘H’.

Working with Homeland Security is what you think: lots of meetings, tons of buzzwords and lack of information reciprocity. I’d provided them with a copy of my hospital findings report which was the framework of the conference session. I was not granted access to any of their After Action Reports/Improvement Plans even though I was a trusted agent (member of their planning team) of the exercise. With that said, I really enjoyed working with my counterpart at my then state Homeland Security Agency. He was knowledgeable, efficient and funny. However, he was a few layers down from the top and likely had minimal influence.

A few months before the conference, I received an email from someone higher up strongly urging me to send them my presentation for their ‘approval’ immediately. While it was their exercise that we piggybacked on, the medical component was self-contained and not a single word in the findings report or abstract was about them. At no point during the massive project did they make it clear they expected control of post-exercise discussions. I never heard another word after politely telling them ‘no’ and forgot about it.

During the conference session Q&A, someone I had never met or seen at any meetings introduced himself as my state’s Homeland Security Agency Director and began trying to argue about minutia. Caught off-guard and embarrassed, I politely told him we could talk in more detail later and kept the Q&A going. He disappeared from the session and since he was a political appointee, from the job.

This man attended a conference he was not the audience for because he was afraid of what might be said. More importantly, his organization did not have an effective chain of command for information sharing that would help its leader understand the needs and work of outside stakeholders.

When you work collaboratively with other committees, departments, divisions or organizations – everyone is still functioning within their normal hierarchy and reporting relationships. How do you communicate with another entity without crossing a line with your counterpart to prevent future executive freak outs towards you – or worse – your boss?
Remember, you have to plan on better collaborative productivity. Here are three tips for creating what I now call the Reporting “H” (affectionately named after the Planning “P”).

Discuss reporting relationships and internal communication flows from the start

One of the secrets to effective communication and collaboration is discussing the mechanisms of how to do it from the start. That doesn’t mean long meetings but conversations about the things we normally don’t bother to discuss or plan through. When you and your colleague begin working together, have a discussion about how each side will report information up and down their chain of command. If you are paying attention and read between the lines well, you’ll probably learn a lot that will help you down the road.

Have a conversation about the dreaded carbon copy so you don’t offend your counterpart

Carbon copying someone on an email means different things to different people and organizations. In some cases, managers are always cc’ed and other times that only occurs when there is a problem. Whatever is normal in your world should be discussed so you don’t cause extra work for each other. Decide when it is appropriate to cc the leadership of the other side in advance. There may be some types of correspondences that warrant a larger audience and should be written for them which likely means ditching the more casual style you and your counterpart use.

Design the reporting relationship between entities like the Reporting ‘H’

You and your colleague in a different section or organization are the gatekeepers and translators because that is part of what a collaborative manager does. Now what happens when they don’t, won’t or can’t do that effectively on their end? In my experience it usually means that someone above them suddenly feels out of the know and often the blame goes outside their chain of command back to the counterpart on the other side. The reporting structure between the two entities should look like an H or maybe an A but certainly not an E, O or X.

ReportingH

You have to plan on better collaborative productivity and that means discussing things we often avoid talking about. While uncomfortable and sometimes unconventional, taking the time to discuss how communication flows and supports inter-agency collaboration takes a few minutes at the start but pays you back tenfold. Figuring out how to keep everyone in the Loop will help you prevent the Organizational Monsters that cost you time, money and headaches.

About Megan Wilmoth

Megan Wilmoth is the president of Planosaurus, a women-owned consulting firm that helps organizations eliminate the common threats to collaboration they affectionately call Organizational Monsters so that projects, programs, boards, committees, and teams can consistently achieve collaborative productivity. With twenty years of experience, she has provided a wide range of planning and management services to organizations ranging from Fortune 500, large and medium-sized companies, trade associations, non-profits, and government agencies. She is fueled by quality coffee and the opportunity to make the thankless job of managing collaborative managers easier.

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  • Megan Wilmoth,
  • July 22, 2015

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Plan on better collaborative productivity