Cross-Functional Collaboration Can Work for Your Teams Too: Here's How

Cross-functional team collaborating on a project

Do teams in your business hoard their knowledge, working alone in their undisturbed silo, or does your business embrace cross-functional collaboration? Unsurprisingly, your answer to that question has big implications for your company’s culture, potential for agility, and likelihood of future success.

The phrase “two heads are better than one” has been in the English language for nearly 500 years, and it’s considered such common-sense wisdom that many of us first learn it in elementary school. Yet, despite knowing better, working in a siloed team has become the norm for so many people.

But if your organization is feeling stuck in a rut, there is no better way to get straight out of it than by introducing cross-functional collaboration. When you bring together people who have different ways of approaching the same problems, you'll get debates, novel angles, and new ideas. The effects could very well be transformative.

Let's explore what cross-functional collaboration has to offer, and how you can implement it in your organization.

What is Cross-Functional Collaboration?

Cross-functional collaboration is when colleagues from different departments or functions come together to work on the same project or goals. Cross-functional teams are interdisciplinary, which means that the team members have different skillsets and areas of expertise.

The mix and make-up of a cross-functional team is going to depend on the needs of the project, as this will dictate whose expertise may be required. Examples of cross-functional collaboration might include, for instance, product teams and customer success experts working together to define, deliver, and gather feedback on a function that customers have requested. 

Why is Cross-Functional Collaboration Important?

The most valuable resource that your business has is the knowledge and experience of your people; one of the key reasons why cross-functional collaboration is so important is because it helps you make the most of this resource. Cross-functional teams can learn from each other, approach problems from fresh perspectives, and create novel opportunities for interdisciplinary mentorship across the organization.

As they are made up of colleagues from different sectors of the business, cross-functional teams operate with a much wider view of what’s going on in the business as a whole. This puts them in a better position to make decisions that are oriented toward long-term, business-wide goals rather than short-term gains that only benefit one department.

Company morale and culture also get a boost when you assign cross-functional teams to projects. A siloed team might feel like they talk to their departmental colleagues ad nauseam, and yet they might not even know the names of everyone in the other (also siloed) department down the hall. Building cross-functional teams can help combat this fragmented feeling, connecting people and helping them see themselves as part of a larger organization, rather than just a specific function.

Why is Cross-Functional Collaboration Useful in Agile Particularly?

The overall goal of the agile framework is to deliver tangible results in increments, building iteratively, and using opportunities to course-correct and shift priorities along the way. But the purpose behind working this way - the real driving ethos behind it - is to be flexible, remaining poised to change if that’s what is needed. Agile is, after all, an adjective and not a noun.

Teams made up of people with a wide range of skills are often able to produce results faster, and so it stands to reason that cross-functional teams work especially well in agile. Providing that they have someone on the team with the right skill set, they won’t need to spend time coordinating and pushing work through other departments, waiting for people to get back to them while valuable time passes by. The relevant team member can just get on with creating a first version of the deliverable for review. 

What Challenges Get in the Way of Effective Cross-Functional Collaboration?

When the whole team really commits to getting the most out of it, the benefits of cross-functional collaboration are potentially huge. However, getting everybody’s buy-in can be challenging. Here are some common reasons why:

  • People Are Happy in Their Comfort-Zone

Many people prefer sticking to the status quo. And though business leaders like to tout such set-ups as “ripe for disruption”, there can be perfectly good reasons why long-standing department members might prefer sticking to their silo. Their team is tried-and-true; everyone has a firm idea of their responsibilities; it's predictable.

If collaborating in a cross-functional team is a new idea for them, they might be concerned that it won’t deliver the same, consistent results that they are used to. In turn, they might worry that this will reflect badly on them. These kinds of anxieties can easily lead to a loss of morale.

  • It’s Harder to Understand Who is Busy or Not

It's easier for people in the same department to understand their colleagues' workloads, simply because the kind of work they are doing is likely to be adjacent or related. But when you bring people together from a range of different departments, that mutual understanding isn't necessarily going to exist. Let's be honest - does anyone truly understand the ins and out of every role, every specialism, and every workload that exists within your organization? 

Even if people in your organization do have an approximate idea of what everyone else is doing, they might not know particular details, such as whether their colleagues have an annual busy period, recurring crunch points, or how many hours a week they spend in meetings. This lack of understanding can of course make scheduling harder, but it may even lead some people to feel that their time isn't being respected.

  • Differences in Work and Communication Styles

If your developers live in an app that your account management team has never heard of, effective cross-functional collaboration between them is going to be a problem. The apps and tools that a team uses have a big impact on how siloed and cut-off it becomes. And the longer your teams have been working in their own bubble, the more firmly any quirky team habits will be entrenched!

  • It’s Difficult to Ensure Accountability

Most departments or functions have their own manager, making it pretty intuitive to know who, at the end of the day, is responsible for the department’s output. However, with a cross-functional team, it might not be so clear who should own certain responsibilities around the team.

Simply assigning ownership to the most senior person in the cross-functional team might not be the right approach: they might already be overloaded and feel that this is an additional burden. Also, they might not even be the person who, ultimately, has the most knowledge to contribute to the cross-functional project.

How to Promote Cross-Functional Collaboration

To achieve the kind of culture shift that will foster a collaborative work environment, it is necessary to get past skepticism and reluctance. For people in different functional areas to work together, share ideas, challenge where necessary, and bring their creativity to bear on a project, they have to feel confident about doing so. It’s not going to work if people don’t feel empowered to speak up.

If your organization is currently more siloed than not, you will have to manage the change and bring people along with you. The following steps will set you off on the right track:

5 Steps to Improve Cross-Functional Collaboration

1. Communicate the Value of Cross-Functional Collaboration

Firstly, you need to give people a reason to buy-in. Once cross-functional collaboration is embedded as a standard, people will likely find it a very rewarding way to work. But it will inevitably take a bit of time to get right. Some old habits may have to go, and new standards set. You might try something one month, only to change it the next when you realize it’s not optimal.

People might feel a degree of frustration while you’re going through this period of concept testing and figuring out how you want cross-functional teams to look in your organization. But it will be easier to push past this frustration if they believe in the value of the changes that are happening.

What goals are your collaborative teams going to be able to achieve that they would not be able to do separately? What knowledge or skills do your team members stand to learn by working this way? To promote cross-functional collaboration, be sure to communicate the positive outcomes that are on the horizon once your teams have adapted. Help your team see that these changes are purposeful.

If you need some in-depth pointers on managing organizational changes, we’ve got you covered. Change management is an entire discipline in itself, which is why we dedicated an entire webinar and e-book to the art of managing change successfully. 

2. Get Everyone Aligned on Expectations and Goals

You’re bringing in people who are used to different ways of working, with different skill sets and different perspectives. They may all, also, have a slightly different view of what the aims of the project should be, and what success would look like. 

Embracing a variety of perspectives is one of the principles of cross-functional collaboration. With luck (and good management) it will lead to some exciting, creative decisions. However, you can’t expect your cross-functional team to collaborate effectively unless they are united on common aims. 

3. Cut Down on the Jargon

We’re all guilty of it. Every team and function ends up developing its own vocabulary of abbreviations and operational jargon. But, especially if we are working in siloed teams, we might not even notice it all that much. We become used to it, and it just stands as part of our everyday team communication. 

For a non-specialist collaborating cross-functionally, however, this can be a barrier to understanding. Not only this, but it can also be off-putting and make cross-functional colleagues feel alienated. It’s hard to feel truly welcome in an environment where people assume you will be fully up-to-speed with all of their cryptic acronyms.

Excessive jargon tends to start at the top and trickle down. So, as the leader of your teams, the best approach is to set an example and champion straightforward, jargon-free communication. For any specialist terms, phrases, and acronyms that can’t be retired, however, consider putting together a publicly-available glossary that any cross-functional collaborators can access when they need clarification.

4. Find a Clear, Centralized Place to Communicate

Working cross-functionally is going to be a lot easier if everyone is using the same platform, with information centralized in a place where everyone can access it. 

With a project management platform like Forecast, the project interface becomes a portal for collaborative, cross-functional working. Even though your people will be configured in different departments with different functions, you can add people from any department to a project. Once a person has been assigned to a project, they can communicate within the project by tagging their fellow project members in tasks and comments. 

5. Create a Cross-Functional Collaboration Framework or Playbook

Every organization is different, and every industry has different quirks and rules. It won’t be enough, therefore, simply to copy a model of cross-functional collaboration that you might have read about. You have to experiment and find out what this kind of collaboration looks like in your business. 

That said, once you have established the cross-functional collaboration best practices for your organization, don’t lose the magic formula! The process of trialing new ideas and making changes can take a while, so, when you have found what works, you want to “refreeze” this new model and establish it as a norm. 

Consider creating a playbook that affirms the model that you have hit upon, and use this to guide how your organization approaches cross-functional collaboration going forward.

Forecast for High-Performing, Cross-Functional Teams

Cross-functional collaboration will only deliver the desired results if you make clear communication a priority. Transparent and robust communication goes a long way to manage some of the challenges we outlined. It promotes accountability, helps people understand each other's workload and priorities, and fosters the connection and trust that will, ultimately, help the team gel and get great work done.

Uniting your cross-functional teams in a platform like Forecast does a lot of the legwork for you. It facilitates centralized communication and creates the visibility that teams desperately need.

Save your cross-functional teams from dysfunction by bringing them together in Forecast.

Try it for yourself by signing up below.

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