When tasked with leading development of a new digital capability for electronics giant Best Buy, Marketing Strategy Director Carolyn Solares quickly recognized the need to arm the project team with new skills. The project scope encompassed not only marketing, but also e-commerce, operations, and information technology. The horizontal nature of the work required close collaboration both within the various marketing functions and with colleagues in other departments. To overcome this challenge, she turned to organizational development (OD), which gives people the knowledge and tools needed to effect successful organizational change in a rapidly changing, complex environment.
Several months earlier, she had brought in Cathy Cassidy, Managing Director of the Matrix Management Institute (MMI), to provide collaborative project management training to her immediate team. Watching her team embrace OD principles in problem solving and project management encouraged Solares to approach leadership and request MMI’s assistance in training a larger, cross-functional group to support the digital platform development.
“MMI’s methodology focuses on high-performing teams,” said Solares, who had completed a “train the trainer” program early in her career. “Having an identifiable structure in place empowers team members and keeps them anchored in the work.” She already had a high-performing team in place, one supported by a culture of collaboration. Intuition told her that applying OD principles would capitalize on these strengths across a broader team.
In October 2016, Cassidy launched a three-day planning session by introducing the matrix-management concepts of collaborative project management training, anchoring each in the specifics of the project at hand. Team members learned about the tools and techniques in the context of a real-world challenge.
She then guided the group through an interactive planning process that would drive their efforts in the months ahead. Armed with colorful sticky notes, the team gathered around whiteboards, where they defined the scope and identified deliverables for each stage of the project, across functions. This co-creation process—which engaged all attendees in discussing and debating options to make the best possible decisions—enabled team members to see the project as a whole. Participants not only saw how their individual actions contributed to the final outcome, but they also realized the interdependent nature of their work.
“At a macro view, those sticky notes represented a future customer-facing product, but at a micro view, each sticky note represented someone’s job to do,” said Daniel Peterson, Marketing Manager at Best Buy. “This leads to clarity, and clarity leads to focus. Enabling talented people to focus is how great products are made.”
In addition, working collaboratively helped the team document the process, which supported decisions about scope, timing, and resources. “When you make decisions collaboratively with all the stakeholders involved, you’re negotiating deliverables in the moment, and it’s a seamless process,” said Cassidy. “Most project leaders know that strong planning gives them the best shot at producing a strategy that’s agreed upon and doable.” For Best Buy, it helped the team secure buy-in and support from others in the organization, as well as gain commitments for each deliverable.
After three days, the Best Buy teams had developed the framework of an integrated plan that showed how the project would progress across the functions during the months ahead. Seeing the concrete results of applying MMI tools inspired participants to continue using them.
A Cohesive Plan
The teams spent several weeks refining the milestones and sub-project plans. While Solares stayed actively engaged, she served more as a facilitator and coach than as a traditional project manager. The teams continued using the co-creation process to map their specific responsibilities and create a fully integrated project plan.
Senior IT Business Analyst Adam Fudge was among those heavily involved in building and executing the project plans. He noted: “Our project impacted many business teams across the enterprise and required numerous systems to deliver a complex solution. The tools and collaboration techniques [provided by Matrix Management Institute] enabled our teams to better organize and execute within the many work-streams required to bring the solution to life.”
Moving the project across departments and functions required clear, proactive communication of deliverables and acceptance criteria. For example, instead of waiting for technical teams to request resources, business teams would ask what was needed, and then confirm the specifics of the request, including what was needed and when.
“We created clarity up front,” said Solares. “We opened the lines of communication to make sure we were in sync. The mutual accountability built more trust, which led to us hitting our timelines.”
Leading Without Authority
Senior Marketing Manager Mariona Belles led multiple sub-project teams and actively used the Matrix Management tools. “The collaborative tools we incorporated helped us to bring the teams to a different mindset and elevated the quality of the teamwork,” she said.
This example demonstrates a key principle of matrix management: leadership without authority. “Successful operation in a matrix is not driven by level or by function,” said Cassidy. “You simply need someone who can engage stakeholders across the organization, who has the right tools and skills from a facilitation perspective.”
A Smooth Launch
The new digital offer platform launched in March 2017, five months after the initial planning sessions. The team anticipated and planned for a number of operational and technical challenges, but no one was prepared for the relaxed atmosphere during the rollout.
“I don’t think the teams fully believed their efforts to manage risks would actually work,” said Solares. “They kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. But it never did.”
The smooth launch resulted in the Marketing Executive Team recognizing the project team with the Q1 Team Choice Award. In addition, many team members ranked this collaborative work among their top achievements in 2017.
Marketing Manager Russ Uecker worked on the project team and continues to support the capability. “I have had the opportunity to work on many different projects, but I consider this one of my proudest accomplishments,” he said. “Launching a new capability in an established company like Best Buy can be a challenge, but the work put in by each member of the project team made this the smoothest launch I have ever been a part of. That smooth launch led to exciting questions of future capabilities from teams instead of questions of process change.”
In addition to facilitating a successful platform launch, using the MMI tools and techniques yielded several key insights with long-lasting benefits.
- Projects vs. Processes. Initially, the marketing team approached the digital platform project like a marketing campaign, which also involves cross-functional collaboration. These familiar endeavors, like other repeatable processes, have defined stages, and the people involved are familiar with their roles and responsibilities. However, the Best Buy team quickly realized that this proven process did not apply to their current project, where they were building something new. They needed to bring a fresh perspective to the current challenge. “Companies execute strategy through projects, which create a unique deliverable,” said Cassidy. “This new platform was driving a piece of the Best Buy strategy. Once the team identified this as a project, they could apply the right tools.”
- Departmental Collaboration. One unexpected, yet natural benefit of using the tools was greater collaboration within each corporate function. Embracing the training concepts in their daily work made employees aware of how cross-functional their individual departments were. In Cassidy’s experience, “There’s always a handoff. A lot of people think, ‘We’re all in marketing or engineering or sales, so we’ll work well together,’ but at a corporate level, these departments are big enough that specialization makes them cross-functional.” Consequently, OD principles can have a significant benefit on an organization’s effectiveness when applied at the departmental level.
- Essential Skills. Perhaps the greatest value that Best Buy realized lay in the wide-ranging applicability of the collaboration skills. As the project progressed, team members saw how the tools and techniques applied universally, regardless of their department or role. The MMI training provided the framework and vocabulary for advancing the project across functions. “This particular project happened to be driven by marketing,” said Solares, “but it could have been owned by e-commerce, operations, or digital technologies. The work is becoming so fluid that the skills transfer across departments.”
Solares considers OD and the MMI methodology a vital complement to traditional project management. The collaboration tools and process shift focus from each department’s responsibilities to a larger, shared goal. These skills became especially important when undertaking a new project that will drive future business processes. “We already knew how to collaborate in running our core business,” she said. “The MMI tools allowed our teams to bring that collaborative spirit and efficiency into new initiatives as well.”
Since launching the new platform, Cassidy has returned to Best Buy to provide project leadership training to 25 more employees. And participants have responded enthusiastically to the training and tools. Solares notes, “A project doesn’t have to be massive for teams to feel empowered and to unlock value for the organization. We continue to see that.”