Cross functional collaboration: The complete guide

What does it take to build a world class cross-functional team? What are the risks if you can’t? We explore the world of cross-team working to discover how to add more clout to your collaboration.

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What is cross functional collaboration?

Cross functional collaboration involves a group of people with a wide range of skills working together on a project.

Imagine launching a new product only using staff from your marketing team. Then picture launching that same product with a salesperson and developer on board. It’s not difficult to see why cross functional collaboration might be more effective.

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Why is cross functional collaboration important?

Why is cross functional collaboration important?

Siloed departments and cross-functional teams sit at opposite ends of the team collaboration spectrum. When employees are isolated from their colleagues with different roles and departments, there’s often a heavy price to pay for the wider workforce.

Breaking down silos

Perhaps the greatest strength of a cross-functional team is its ability to challenge the status quo. Staff who work in the same department, or those trained to tackle problems in the same way as their managers, will often follow existing processes. That means they can repeat the same mistakes and overlook opportunities to work more efficiently.

Collaborating with people from different backgrounds also encourages people to buy into broader business aims. Working in silos can lead to a tunnel-vision mentality that leaves employees - and sometimes whole departments - feeling isolated. In some cases, this outlook can trigger unhealthy competition between people. At the other end of the scale, it can lead to employees disengaging with the organization or their role within it.

Staff who don’t work well with others are more likely to produce misaligned or duplicated work. And failing to communicate with colleagues can lead to less informed decisions that can impact people right across the business.

Including frontline workers

Deskless workers are often disconnected from their office-based colleagues. Our Deskless Not Voiceless 2020 Report found that communication techniques between the two groups vary significantly.

For example, while 90% of HQ managers used email to contact co-workers during coronavirus lockdowns, only a quarter of frontline managers did the same. Instead, more than half of frontline or deskless workers used apps on their own devices. This shadowy and unaligned approach prevents business leaders from talking to frontline staff and provides little right of reply to those working in critical frontline roles.

The recovery from the pandemic offers the opportunity to roll out official communication tools that can deliver clear messaging and keep people connected across the organization – frontline workers included. This will encourage cross-functional collaboration with frontline staff helping to boost team spirit and reinforce values. It also opens up a dialogue for deskless staff to feed back on new processes. The two-way conversation enables businesses to make better decisions and adapt more quickly to changing situations.

Building cross-functional teams

Building cross-functional teams

We know that a cross-functional team can improve results, but how do you assemble the perfect squad? Should you elect a leader? How often should the group meet? There are plenty of things to consider when picking the most practical combination of co-workers. While there isn’t a single answer for every project or all businesses, it’s vital you think about any complications or pitfalls before they affect performance.

How is cross team collaboration different?

How is cross team collaboration different?

You’re used to collaborating in your usual team, so what’s the difference when you’re building and working with a cross-functional team? There are two main aspects to consider.

Building your team

Building your team

Conventional departments are usually structured around staff experience. Junior, midweight, senior, executive - they’re all terms we use in job titles to help us understand someone’s abilities in their role. Cross-functional teams may form organically and include members from different departments to cover a wider range of skills.

Although single-function teams often feature people with varying experience, most members usually work at the same level. In a cross-functional team a more junior team member may lead a group, including members with more experience.

Working with your team

Working with your team

When people from different parts of a business work together, it can often challenge conventional ways of doing things. New techniques and unconventional ideas can lead to outcomes that wouldn’t have been possible in a single department, with fresh perspectives offering a more comprehensive range of solutions.

When signing off on a task, it isn’t unusual for cross-functional teams to bypass the usual approval processes and present their work at the highest level. With so many departments playing their part, problem-solving is usually more robust, and teams can catch mistakes earlier in the work process.

Cross functional collaboration challenges

Cross functional collaboration challenges

Cross-functional teams usually fail for similar reasons as conventional teams. One way to stop cross-team collaboration challenges developing is to identify weaknesses before work has even begun. ‘The Five Dysfunctions of a Team’ theory from 2002 is still a useful framework to use.

Absence of trust

Team members might not have much of a relationship with each other before you begin assembling your super team, especially within a hybrid workforce. If colleagues have little or no expectations of someone’s abilities, building camaraderie and trust can be difficult.

Fear of conflict

When colleagues aren’t familiar with each other, things can go in one of two directions. Fear of confrontation can prevent the team from debating ideas to preserve a false sense of harmony, leading to groupthink. Or, if you’re really unlucky, co-workers can clash with each other over simple miscommunication.

Lack of commitment

Most cross-functional team members will have responsibilities in their usual department. It’s essential they find ways to balance the new assignment's priorities with their everyday duties. If the new team isn't confident of other individuals' commitment levels, it can affect enthusiasm and efficacy.

Avoidance of accountability

If day-to-day business communication within the team continues to be a problem, individuals could be more likely to pin poor performance on people they don’t have a working relationship with. While teams play the blame game, standards tend to slip.

Inattention to results

It’s vital for cross-functional teams to think about the bigger picture. Emphasizing individual tasks can take focus away from where it’s needed, and results can suffer.

The benefits of cross functional collaboration

The benefits of cross functional collaboration

Once you’ve identified, avoided or tackled the pitfalls, working in cross-functional teams can reap rich rewards.

Faster progress

When different functions in business work in silos, progress can be a long, drawn-out affair. Picture a time when you’ve called a company with a query only to find yourself transferred from one extension to the next. It isn’t only frustrating, but time-consuming too. Now imagine a small team of experts answered your call on speakerphone. With the right organization, you’d probably arrive at a more useful answer much more quickly.

Robust results

Different departments provide different perspectives. An accountant is more likely to think of the financial elements of a business decision. Someone from HR will probably look at how the same decision might affect employee relationships and wellbeing. A team member from a third department could identify pitfalls in both approaches that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. Sharing knowledge and using multiple methods can help to build more robust solutions.

Improved creativity and innovation

Cross-functional teams are usually more creative than department-based groups. With a wide range of skills to choose from, a business can experiment with their responses to a task or even combine skills that are rarely brought together. Cross-team collaboration across different functions also allows team members to challenge how things are done. The most successful cross-functional teams test ideas before work even begins.

Increased engagement and team spirit

Collaborating with colleagues who are usually distant boosts working relationships. As people engage with more colleagues, it can help them feel more connected to the business as a whole. There’s a chance employees might even pick up some new skills along the way. When people improve their problem-solving skills together, developing their abilities, and building social ties with their colleagues, businesses are more likely to retain their best talent.

Best practices for cross functional collaboration

Best practices for cross functional collaboration

Try these ideas to bring departments together.

Get buy-in from senior management

Enlisting the help of heads of the department is a sure-fire way to add some clout to your collaboration. If you recruit colleagues from the same department, the senior team members can help track juniors' progress. A thoughtful addition to your team should ensure that everyday responsibilities don’t take priority over your cross-functional project. Best of all, when it comes to sign-off, you’ll have the backing of a company heavyweight.

Use the right collaboration tools for the job

Ensuring everyone - remote, deskless or office-based - uses the same tools in a cross-functional team is also critical to success. Find a communication tool that integrates with your existing software. Make sure that tools connect your entire organization so people can use mobile devices to stay up to date with company news and collaborate effectively wherever they’re working.

Encourage face-to-face interactions

Face-to-face interactions are one of the easiest ways to build trust within your team. When making video calls, ask colleagues to switch on cameras and encourage them to share their screens.

5 pro tips for a successful cross functional collaboration

5 pro tips for a successful cross functional collaboration

According to a study by Behnam Tabrizi 75% of cross-functional teams are dysfunctional.1 However, his research showed that projects with strong governance support have a success rate of 76%, compared with just 19% for teams where governance support is only moderate.

So how can you avoid dysfunction in your team? If companies want to reap the benefits of a diverse group, forward planning is essential. Here we run through a few of our favorite pro tips to boost the success of your cross-team collaboration.

Assemble your team carefully

Start building your A-team by identifying the skills you’ll need for the job. Once you know that, it’s time to decide who has the desirable skills. If more than one candidate crops up, you should think about how well they work in a group. You’ll need an innovative combination of doers and organizers.

Not all cross-functional teams need a leader, but most will benefit from having someone in charge. Unlike other projects, senior members of staff won’t always lead projects run by cross-functional teams. You might consider choosing someone comfortable assigning tasks to people with more experience.

Host a kick-off meeting

Members need to feel just as confident communicating with their new team as with their usual department. To help everyone feel comfortable sharing ideas and asking questions, hold an informal kick-off meeting. A social call between remote and frontline workers will help to create an open dialogue that benefits everyone further down the line, no matter where people are based.

Keep track of progress

You’ll need to decide how and when team members share progress updates with their colleagues. Will it be time-based or task-based? If meeting once a week or every two weeks doesn’t sound flexible enough for your schedule, remember there are plenty of ways to check-in on tasks with the right online tools.

Make the most of your meetings

Unnecessary meetings eat up time. When you schedule a meeting, make sure you set a clear agenda in advance so everyone can prepare for the conversation. Remember to organize calls that remote workers can dial into and ensure times make sense for people working in different time zones. The best tools will allow your deskless workers to join conversations seamlessly wherever they are.

Set a transparent decision-making process

Team members need to know what decisions they can make on their own. When a second opinion is needed, everyone should know who to report to in advance. If you’re having trouble weighing up whether a team leader or the wider group should make a choice, it’s usually better to leave decisions to the group. This helps to ensure team buy-in, and it’s better for accountability.

Set guidelines from the start to help steer the group’s thinking on more challenging decisions. Prioritizing customer experience over budget could be just one of the rules you establish to give team members the confidence to make better choices. And it’s also an excellent opportunity to remind everyone of the common goal.

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