Cross-functional collaboration allows us to assemble high-performance teams with the expertise necessary to deliver the best possible outcomes, whether that’s a new product, operational solution, better customer service, or increased revenue.
But for all its benefits, cross-functional teams face many challenges that can hurt their progress toward team and company goals. That’s why we’ve written this guide to successful cross-functional collaboration. Here’s what we’ll cover:
- What cross-functional collaboration looks like.
- The benefits of cross-functional collaboration.
- Common challenges faced by collaborative teams.
- Tips to build high-performing cross-functional teams in your workplace.
What does cross-functional collaboration look like?
In their most basic form, cross-functional teams bring together different skill sets to achieve a desired outcome. Depending on the company’s size and offerings, the definition of a cross-functional team and the desired outcome varies.
This may mean:
- Three members of a start-up managing development, marketing, and design to launch the company.
- A technical SEO specialist, content writer, and social media manager working to increase online presence.
- Individuals from customer success, product, and sales working to reduce churn.
- Product, development, legal, design, marketing, sales, and PR working to launch a new product or service.
As you can see, cross-functional teams can be any size and the desired outcome can be the completion of a finite project or the achievement of long-standing goals.
What are the benefits of cross-functional collaboration?
Research shows that cross-functional collaboration has a pervasive impact across businesses. Let’s take a look at six of them.
Did you know that connected teams experience 21% higher profitability? Instead of having singular knowledge silos, pooling together a diverse set of skills into a more extensive knowledge base helps to get projects completed faster and to a higher standard.
When different teams get together and share their expertise, employees learn from each other and develop new skills in the process. This could mean gaining tactical skills and discovering helpful tools, but also developing communication skills, emotional intelligence, adaptability, and self-awareness. Well-rounded employees with an inclination toward continuous learning make for a stronger company that ultimately has competitive advantage in the market.
Stronger company culture
When we incorporate collaboration in our day-to-day, we encourage a workplace culture based on togetherness and teamwork rather than individual-mindedness. Employees gain a greater respect for what their colleagues do and understand different perspectives from different departments.
Also, cross-functional teams enable employees to have direct connections to other employees in other departments, rather than indirectly through their managers. These individual relationships and interactions provide the setting where core values can be demonstrated and acknowledged.
Strong company culture translates into greater stability, as 37% of employees say “working with a great team” has been their primary reason for staying at an organization even when they weren’t happy with their job.
When an individual participates in cross-functional work, they can see that they are a part of something bigger, which is a natural motivator. They also get to experience first-hand how the company operates—as opposed to just from company meetings or their manager relaying information back to them.
With visibility into how the company works as a whole toward its mission and how they contribute to it, employee loyalty wins out over employee turnover. And with hiring new talent costing businesses, on average, $4,129 in expenses, employee engagement is a must.
When the unique members of a department put their heads together, they come up with ideas and solutions far greater than what they’d come up with individually. Cross-functional teams enable this on a larger scale, resulting in truly innovative outcomes that can impact the entire company or even the industry.
Cross-functional collaboration makes for better leaders because it keeps them apprised of a broader range of accomplishments, challenges, and needs across the company. In addition, it forges leadership skills like communication, integrity, interpersonal effectiveness, accountability, and transparency.
These leadership skills can be developed and practiced by anyone, which means it can also help individual contributors become better teammates and even prepare for future roles.
How to combat common challenges of cross-functional collaboration
As the old saying goes, you can’t get something for nothing. For all the benefits that come with cross-functional collaboration, there are plenty of challenges as well.
1. Reinforce goals to settle conflicting interests
When people with different knowledge, backgrounds, goals, and training come together there are inevitably going to be conflicts of interest from time to time. This may not necessarily mean that some are more concerned with their individual success over that of the broader company. It could also mean that since different departments have different passions and perspectives, the individuals that come from them will naturally focus on different priorities.
The key to overcoming this very common challenge is to reinforce the company ethos and goals at every opportunity. This will unite teams across departments and ensure that organizational goals are at the core of every project.
2. Document and track to preserve accountability
There is sometimes a tendency for teamwork to create the illusion of no accountability. In other words, sometimes cross-functional teams can lack a sense of responsibility for a project’s outcome. And that’s not productive for anyone.
To avoid the curse of no accountability, there should be one centralized location where goals and KPIs are documented, tasks are clearly listed, and owners are assigned. This could mean something as simple as a Google sheet or more involved like a project management platform.
3. Encourage communication to build trust
In many cases, cross-functional teams bring together team members who may not know each other well, who may not have met in person, or who haven’t worked together in the past. This can give way to a lack of trust throughout the team—not necessarily in a malicious sense but in a subconscious way due to their lack of familiarity with the person.
It will take time for them to learn to work productively alongside each other and build innate trust, but leaders must also implement a “policy” of open and honest communication and teammate acknowledgment.
4. Standardize platform use to prevent disjointed efforts
It’s fairly common that each department in an organization will use a different software set-up for their day-to-day functioning. And that can make things particularly tricky for cross-departmental collaboration.
One way to overcome this is to unify your technology solutions company-wide, but often this isn’t the current situation at hand. Instead, it might be worth taking this into account when picking members of your cross-functional team. In other words, try to pick people who are ready to learn and quick to adopt new tools, web apps, and software.
5. Prioritize information centralization for remote access
Over the last few years, remote work has become increasingly commonplace. And this trend has been furthered since the pandemic. In fact, Forbes has revealed that by 2025 an estimated 70% of the workforce will be working remotely. But this brings some additional challenges when it comes to cross-functional teamwork.
With individuals and entire teams working away from the office, communication requires more creative and innovative solutions. Today’s employers need to prioritize information sharing and online platforms that facilitate as good (if not better) collaborative efforts.
How to improve cross-functional collaboration in your workplace
Achieving effective cross-functional collaboration in the workplace can be tricky, but the results are well worth it. Here are four tips to build the best cross-functional teams in your business.
6. Pick the right members
A great cross-functional team doesn’t necessarily mean putting your top performers together.
- It’s about combining the best skills needed to achieve the desired outcome.
- While cross-functional collaboration promotes employee growth, it’s still important to put careful thought into which personality combinations will work best together to facilitate this growth.
- It may also be wise to combine a mix of performance levels in a team, so that there is an even distribution throughout teams and low-performers can learn.
- Some seemingly “low performers” might simply not have the opportunity to exercise their best skills. Placing them on the right cross-functional team may bring out the best in them.
7. Have a plan
Any collaborative effort needs a framework. So have a plan, and make it a thorough one. Your plan should lay out:
- Project mission: Establish a bigger-picture mission that keeps the team motivated and inspired.
- Project objectives: This is the north start that will help to make the best decisions.
- Progress markers: Standing check-ins or meetings as checkpoints will help keep the team on track
- KPIs: These tangible results will hold individuals accountable.
- Owners: Clear owners make for better communication and organization.
- Expectations: When the team knows what the ultimate stakeholder is expecting, they can align and even become inspired to exceed those expectations.
8. Incentivize performance
Not only should leaders of cross-functional teams measure progress and success with KPIs, but they should also reward individuals or teams for high performance. They might even run a friendly competition between cross-functional teams.
9. Select the right tech
For cross-functional teams to function well, you’ll need the right collaboration and communication technology—from screen sharing to video conferencing, project management applications to VoIP solutions—to get the job done.
All too often, departments use different tools and channels for communication and operations. This can make cross-functional collaboration difficult. Establishing which channels will be used for which purposes will help keep things running smoothly.
Experience the advantages of cross-functional collaboration now
Today’s work culture is all about agility, flexibility, and fast footedness, and accessing diverse skills via teamwork is the name of the game.
While cross-functional teamwork comes with its challenges, the rewards are plenty. Companies can use their diverse knowledge base to its highest potential, engage and retain employees, build true leadership and innovation, and ultimately have a competitive advantage in their market. Use the tips and best practices above to reap the full benefits of cross-functional collaboration in your workplace today.
About the author
Sunny Dhami is the Senior Director, EMEA Product Marketing & GTM for RingCentral. He has extensive Marketing experience across SaaS, Telecommunications and Technology sectors within companies such as Vodafone, Reed Elsevier, Calor Gas and SapientNitro. Sunny has also written for websites such as Luckyorange.