19 November 2019

This is cross-posted at the Stratasan blog.

Understanding, Trust, and Transparency are Three Keys to Success

I recently finished David McCullough’s “The Path Between The Seas,” an overview of the planning and construction of the Panama Canal. The scale of the human effort put into this project is incomprehensible, but there is much to be learned from it about leadership, organizational alignment, and the importance of communication.

One way to think about alignment and communication is partnership. In the lead up to the construction of the canal, William Gorgas was sent to Panama to deal with the problem of malaria and yellow fever. At the turn of the 20th century, many were still skeptical of the connection between these diseases and mosquitoes. When Gorgas tried to advocate for resources to reduce the mosquito population, he was constantly met with resistance and skepticism. Even though it was his job to reduce the tropical diseases that ravaged the canal worker population, he was unable to do so because his peers viewed him as a challenge to be overcome, not a partner in the construction of the canal.

The first Chief Engineer of the canal, John Wallace, saw Gorgas as an annoyance. As an engineer, he was concentrating on “making the dirt fly” and did not consider Gorgas’s medical background to be helpful with this effort. It wasn’t until John Stevens became Chief Engineer that Gorgas was taken seriously. Stevens viewed Gorgas as a partner in a humanitarian effort. Once Gorgas was given the requested resources he was able to quickly eliminate cases of yellow fever.

Partnership—among individuals, departments, and other organizations—is pivotal to the success of any venture, whether it’s placing a new outpatient clinic or connecting the Pacific to the Atlantic over fifty miles of mosquito-infested jungle. So how do we cultivate partnerships?

3 Keys to Cultivating Partnership

1. Seek to Understand

As someone who straddles the line between the business and technical side, the partnership between the two is something I spend a lot of time thinking about. The best software engineers work hard to not only become masters of their craft, but also to understand the business problems that they are working to solve. Likewise, executives and managers benefit from understanding the technical side: software development methodologies, maintenance costs, and more.

Understanding incentives—how they differ and where they overlap—is pivotal in seeking understanding. Sales team members may be focused on revenue and retention, while tech team members may place more weight on lowering maintenance costs. Team members need to look for common ground: if an engineer is seeking to spend a significant amount of time paying down technical debt, it’s helpful to explain how not doing so might impact revenue in the near future.

Additionally, it’s always best to assume positive intent from others. If we start from the assumption that every team member is looking out for the health of the company, it’s much easier to find that common ground! That leads to the next way to promote a culture of partnership.

2. First, Trust

It goes without saying that communication is important to a healthy partnership. However, writing or talking alone doesn’t get us far without trust. Much like reputation, psychological safety is hard to build and maintain and easy to destroy! An organization can spend years building up mutual trust, only to destroy it in weeks or even days.

Respectful listening and humility are both key to building and keeping trust. Both listening and humility require active participation—which is not the default stance most humans take when communicating. Notably, organizational leaders are in the terrifying position of being influential examples of this to the rest of the company. Their leadership is key to creating a culture based on trust.

3. Transparency

The only thing that’s worse than poor communication is no communication. Transparency means being honest when things aren’t going well, making information accessible and discoverable, and keeping the lines of communication open and clear. It sounds like such a simple thing, but much like trust, it’s difficult to build and easy to destroy.

The benefits of transparency extend beyond building trust: it’s even been proven to increase patient safety. The Harvard Business Review explains that transparency, and ultimately, improved patient safety, happens when leaders create a “no-blame culture.” The article continues with “It is the responsibility of the leadership team to develop an atmosphere in which there is balanced accountability and continuous improvement.” When leaders are open and transparent, and when it’s demonstrated that transparency will be rewarded, then everyone will be more at ease adopting this approach.

Why This Matters

Can you imagine if John Wallace had sat down with Gorgas and sought to understand why he asked for an incredible amount of resources to control the mosquito population in Panama? What if he had trusted that Gorgas as a partner, rather than seeing him as competition? Thousands of lives might have been saved.

Cultivating partnerships in an organization may not lead to such life-saving benefits, but it can definitely make or break a company. Much has been written about organizational alignment, but really they’re just fancy words for working together. It’s so much easier to work together if we’re headed in the same direction and we first seek to understand and trust!



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