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Cross-functional collaboration: What it is & how to improve it

Last updated on
April 28, 2022
Cross-functional collaboration: What it is & how to improve it

Collaboration and communication tools have absolutely boomed in the last few years – and ever since the pandemic, when the world was sent home to work, our reliance on these tools has only grown greater. But just because collaboration tech has improved, that doesn’t mean that the collaboration itself is always seamless – and this is especially the case for cross-functional collaboration.

But though the problems of cross-functional collaboration are being talked about more, many of us still aren’t entirely sure what it entails – let alone why it’s often so challenging. So what exactly is cross-functional collaboration, why is it important, and how can we improve it?

What is cross-functional collaboration?

Cross-functional collaboration occurs when people from different teams or areas work together to achieve a common goal. It can include smaller ad-hoc responsibilities, like customer support working with the marketing team on social media, and large, lengthy projects, like product development and sales teams working together to develop a new tool.

Cross-functional collaboration can be a permanent process – for example, sales and marketing teams working together for a project launch. But it can also be a temporary, one-off measure that’s designed to solve a problem or suggest process improvements.

Effective cross-functional collaboration is a key component of success – and it also helps contribute to a happier, more enjoyable working environment. It becomes especially important when companies are working remotely, as so many are today, or when an organization has a flat hierarchy.

That said, making cross-functional collaboration work isn’t always easy.

Why it’s so hard for different teams to collaborate

Before we delve into the different ways leaders can improve cross-functional collaboration, it’s helpful to examine the reasons why it can be such a challenge.

One of the most common reasons why so many organizations struggle with collaboration across teams is silos. With so many companies moving to a hybrid way of working, it’s all-too-easy for silos to form – and how can you avoid it when half a team works mainly in the office and the other half is at home?

But silos don’t just occur with people – they can impact apps too.

To improve communication across departments and achieve company-wide alignment, it’s common for organizations to introduce more and more tech and tools – but if the apps themselves are siloed, cross-team collaboration will still be a struggle. Data will be spread across multiple different tools and apps, and joining them to get a unified view is challenging.

Now that so many teams are remote, geographical issues can also arise. If an organization is distributed across multiple locations and timezones, it can be difficult to keep all teams informed. It’s not uncommon for companies to rely on emails or Slack messages for conversations that need to be collaborative, and this can mean having to trawl through long chat threads when you’re trying to follow up on something.

The benefits of cross-team collaboration

There are several key benefits of cross-team collaboration. Being able to solve problems that affect more than one team or department allows a company to develop and thrive – and aside from the benefits the organization will experience, cross-team collaboration gives individual team members an advantage, too.

Some specific advantages of cross-team collaboration include:

  • Improved innovation. When you bring people from different teams and departments together, they’ll inevitably have different experiences and viewpoints. It’s this diversity that can help shed light on issues, bring new perspectives to a project, challenge preconceived ideas and ultimately improve innovations.

  • Quicker rate of change. When you regularly encourage people with different experiences, backgrounds and areas of influence to collaborate, you’re helping build trust and empathy. People are ready and willing to accept that they don’t always know best, and when everyone’s on the same page, delays are less likely to happen, and change and progress is much quicker.

  • Improved organizational knowledge. When team members collaborate with people who have different areas of expertise within the business, not only are they learning more about the organization and its wider goals, they’re also gaining an understanding of how their own work is important. Plus, it can also be culture affirming and help team members feel more engaged.

How to improve collaboration across teams

So, now we know why cross-team collaboration is so important – and why it often fails – let’s look at how leaders can actually improve cross-functional collaboration. How can you actually go about setting up a cross functional collaboration framework?

1. Get buy-in from senior leadership

Before you can begin to improve cross-functional collaboration, you need to ensure that senior leaders are on board. Leaders should know exactly where, why and how this cross-functional plan will go into action, and they should be able to define the goals and objectives of the project.

It’s helpful to consider whether senior leaders are experienced in leading teams that are comprised of people from different disciplines. Leaders will also need to work together to identify areas of the business that need more cross-functional collaboration than others, and outline objectives.

2. Choose the right people to be involved

In pretty much all organizations, there are people who stand out as natural leaders, even if they’re not actually in an official leadership role. These types of people work well with others, and because they’re generally well-liked within the company, they can help inspire other people. These are the types of people you should try to involve in your cross-functional collaboration plans.

But also, helping lead a diverse team of people from different functional areas is not an easy task, and it may be that you need to look at who you’re hiring. Effective leadership is vital for successful cross-functional collaboration, and this may mean hiring people specifically for that purpose.

3. Ensure teams are aligned on goals

Being aligned on goals is also crucial for cross-functional collaboration, so leaders will need to take time to define a clear project outcome. When different teams have different priorities, cross-functional collaboration will always be a doomed effort; each department might be clear about their own objectives, but when united with other department goals, they may not mesh.

As a leader, you need to clearly and consistently communicate how individual or team KPIs are all working together towards a common goal. You also need to ensure the company goals are publicly visible so all team members, not just leaders, understand your objectives and priorities.

4. Prioritize training

Once team members are aligned on goals, it’s important for people to understand exactly how cross-functional collaboration is going to come into play – and that will involve training. Tools and apps are an essential component of collaboration, but they can also be overwhelming and disruptive – and people may not know how, when or why to use them.

So, take time to ensure team members know how to use different forms of collaboration tech – this may mean allocating more time to team management and training. If you’re introducing a major new process or tool, it’s also helpful to let people ease into it gradually, rather than pushing a big overhaul too quickly.

But training isn’t just about tech; it also involves developing people skills, like dealing with conflict, or being able to show empathy. It’s normal for there to be some conflict within teams, and leaders must know how to make sure all parties feel heard. They also need to ensure they’re providing necessary support, so team members know they can come to them with questions and concerns.

5. Facilitate team members getting to know each other

Successful cross-functional collaboration doesn’t mean that team members need to be best friends, but you do need to have mutual respect for each other and be able to communicate openly. If teams have been previously siloed and brought into what feels like a high-stakes environment, the lack of trust will hamper communication, so encourage team members to get to know each other.

There are both formal and informal ways to go about encouraging team members to share their work with each other and develop relationships – and socializing is possible (and fun!) even if you all work remotely. Try to bring the team together regularly so they can share the latest developments and allow the different personalities to gel.

Managers should also be encouraged to get to know each other. Once relationships between managers are strong, it’s easier for them to champion their own teams to link in with other teams in ways that can help solve their work challenges. It should be stressed that team members are collaborators, not competitors, and building positive relationships is key.

6. Help cross-functional teams stay in-the-know

Being able to clearly communicate the point, status, and results of a project is essential for success, so leaders should develop a communication strategy that helps cross-functional teams stay in-the-know. When developing your cross-functional collaboration framework, take time to develop a communications framework at the same time.

This framework should lay out what each communication channel is for, set limits for meetings and communications, consider what information needs to be communicated, and figure out how people will have visibility over progress. While chat tools can be useful for short conversations, to keep everyone in the loop and promote transparency, it’s better to communicate through open channels.

Ultimately, however you structure cross-functional collaboration, to succeed you must be able to communicate effectively – and this can’t be done without a robust remote-first policy that prioritizes async, transparent communication.

7. Set clear workflows for cross-functional projects

Most people probably think they know how to collaborate, but if there are no set workflows for cross-functional projects, it’s easy for things to go wrong. Create rules of engagement and clearly defined workflows for collaboration so everyone is on the same page about what they need to do and when.

Lack of clarity is a common reason cross-team collaboration fails, so while having different apps for different departments to manage their workflows may have some benefits, having a single digital workplace means that everyone’s in the same place, and managing projects and automating workflows becomes much simpler.

8. Make sure you have the right tech stack to support collaboration across teams

Tools are obviously an essential part of cross-functional collaboration, but if you don’t use the right tools it can be overwhelming and disruptive. You’ll need tools for communication, for organizing meetings, for productivity, for project management… and if you’re using multiple tools, it’s easy to see how communication and collaboration can become chaotic.

Take time to consider whether you’re using the right tools for the job – and if you don’t need a tool, get rid of it. Never use a tool that over-complicates things, and keep testing the effectiveness of your tools and apps as you go along. Do your best to select simple, lightweight tools and ensure everyone is comfortable using them.

Final words

Once you start using the right systems and tools, you might be surprised at how much easier it is to manage cross-team collaboration. For example, task tracking tools like Timely allow you to quickly see project progress and team availability, and AI-powered tools like Dewo mean that scheduling cross-team meetings becomes infinitely easier.

Cross-team collaboration has the potential to unlock an organization’s best and most innovative work, and while facilitating cross-functional collaboration can be a challenge, it’s a barrier that’s absolutely worth breaking down.

So good luck and get collaborating!

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