When I was at Juniper, my job was basically to sell internally those ideas that were deemed so controversial or hotly contested that no one could get them through the corporate machinery. This put me in a position that I was almost always leading cross-functional teams whose members did not directly report to me. I ended up building a short playbook that was invaluable to getting these teams to do work for me when I had no direction organizational control.
The most essential tool in my cross-functional playbook is based on a psychological phenomenon called foot-in-the-door theory. The general premise of this technique is that you can get people to agree to do something big by first getting them to agree to accomplish more modest tasks.
For example, rather than asking their child to clean their room, a parent my start by asking the child to put one toy away. Slowly, the parent increases the magnitude of the request. Maybe the next ask is for clothes to be put in the hamper. Then maybe the bed needs to be made. And finally the parent suggests the vacuum cleaner and some Windex.
Psychologically, the act of compliance establishes a relationship. Continued compliance turns that relationship into an operating model. If played out to the extreme, that operating model can be used to great effect.
How does this work practically?
I start off by calling a kickoff meeting with the cross-functional team members. I intentionally keep this meeting to 15-30 minutes and usually on the phone. The intention is to make the barrier to entry so small that people cannot balk at the initial request. In the meeting, I will provide some context about why the team has been formed, allow team members to introduce themselves, and talk a little bit about the timelines and deliverables.
But the entire point of the first meeting is to establish an operating model. So towards the end of the meeting, I will generally fabricate a reason that people need to send me an email update. It could be something as simple as available times for a recurring meeting or even a little bit more involved with people sending some text or an idea. But the ask is quite deliberately small – something that can be retired with less than 10 minutes of effort. I ask the team how much effort they think the task will take. When they indicate it is less than an hour’s worth of work, I ask by when they can finish.
A subtle point of importance here is that I let them scope out the task and assign their own deadline. Because we have not yet assumed an operating model, the team will be most accountable to themselves. They need to have autonomy in setting the deadline. But because the request is so small, the team always assigns a deadline of a couple of days (certainly by week’s end for any kickoff meeting held before Thursday).
I ask that everyone copy the entire team when they fulfill their responsibility. It is important that there be positive peer pressure to accomplish tasks by when they have been committed. It also allows me to respond to everyone with a thank you and a reminder about the deadline. Positive feedback is a much better way to drive good behavior than nagging or scolding.
At this first meeting, I do two other things that are noteworthy: I always assign myself an action much larger than the collective team actions, and I send out meeting minutes immediately after the meeting. I want to demonstrate that I am pulling my own weight and that no task is too big or too small for me to tackle as well. My job is to lead the team, but I am simultaneously a leader and a team member. This helps establish that there is an equitable distribution of work.
At the second team meeting, I begin by reviewing the actions, making sure to call out each person who finished the task. People generally want recognition for a job well done, and it is a great way to reinforce the operating model. The dynamic I am creating is that when there is something to be done, I identify the action, they scope it and set a deadline, and then they complete the action on time.
As the meetings go on, the size and complexity of the actions will slowly increase. After only a few weeks of meeting as a team, there is never any real pushback on organizational responsibility. By working up with modest requests, I have built a team that complies with relatively large requests without any real question about authority.
The psychology behind the meeting strategy is quite powerful. Simple application of this basic psychology can make you a much more effective cross-functional leader. And leading these types of teams well is a great way to get noticed and eventually promoted for your leadership skills.